by Kristin Hannah
& Interview by Elise Cooper
Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a must
read for anyone who has never read this historical novel that was
first published in 2015. While people are locked down they might
want to pick up this novel, which is very relevant to today considering
that Yom HaShoah, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance
Day, has just been observed. The plot has two sisters who are both
heroic and martyrs for their unselfish acts.
Vianne and Isabelle embarked on their
own dangerous path that included survival, courageousness, love,
and resilience. They showed incredible strength during these terrible
times in Nazi-occupied France.
The story begins in 1995 as one of
the sisters tells what happened to her and her sister starting in
1939 France. In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says
goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. When
a German, Captain Beck, requisitions Vianne's home, she and her
daughter Sophie must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without
food, money or hope, she is forced to make one impossible choice
after another to keep her family alive. Through her eyes, readers
understand the brutality of the Germans as they loot, steal, beat,
and starve the French population. Even worse, the French Jews were
being deported to concentration camps. This is where Vianne decides
she must risk her and her daughter’s life by taking in a Jewish
baby, her best friend’s son, when his mother is sent to a
concentration camp. After Captain Beck disappears another German,
a Gestapo Agent, Sturmbann Fuhrer Von Richter, requisitions their
home, brutally forcing Vianne to acquiesce to his male desires.
Knowing she can no longer stay on the sidelines, Vianne decides
to save nineteen Jewish children by hiding them in a convent and
creating false identity papers. But her heroics are personal as
well, enduring severe brutality to keep her children alive and to
find word about her captured husband.
Her sister, Isabelle, is no less
brave. She meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French
can fight the Nazis from within France. As she falls in love with
him, she feels betrayed when he deserts her at her sister’s
home. Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking
her life time and again to save others. She refuses to accept France's
surrender despite her sister's pleading to stay quiet and safe.
As things take an unexpected turn, she decides to take matters into
her own hands, and joins an underground group, The Resistance, that
risks their lives to fight the Nazis. From now on, she becomes Juliette
Gervaise, code name the Nightingale. Isabelle volunteers for dangerous
duty, shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain.
After reading this book readers will
understand what the French citizens and Jews went through at the
hands of the Nazis. A quote by Vianne summarizes how people behave
when confronted by adversity, “In love we find out who we
want to be; in war we find out who we are.” This is not just
another World War II novel, but delves into how women made an imprint
on the war. Having been given a great deal of hype, a reader might
question if it can live up to its publicity. It actually did more
than that, it surpassed it, and is still surpassing it.
Elise Cooper: What was your
thought process in developing the storyline?
Kristin Hannah: It started
out to be Isabelle’s story. My original idea was to write
about those women who helped downed Allied airmen get out of occupied
France during World War II. As I was doing the research I found
out about the hidden Jewish children. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t
write a book about heroic women of WWII without including this storyline.
When I had the book tour for this event, I had people coming up
to me who told me they were a hidden child. Interestingly, it is
still not talked about a lot.
Elise: Why the setting in
Kristin: Because the original
story was about the downed airmen and that primarily happened in
France. I also read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay that
told a story about the Holocaust. It alternated between a ten-year-old
French Jewish girl and an American journalist who wants to tell
her story. I also wanted to explore the difference between occupied
France and the non-occupied portion. France has not really owned
up to what they had done during the war until rather late.
Elise: The pictures at the
end of the book?
Kristin: My husband and
I took a trip there for five weeks. We started in Paris and followed
Isabelle’s route as she helped the Allied airmen escape. I
hope the reader is able to picture in their heads what I pictured
Elise: Did you explore the
issue of motherhood?
Kristin: Yes, and how it
impacts courage and heroism. It was easier for Isabelle to be heroic,
brave, and a risk-taker because she was only endangering her own
life. Her sister, Vianne, represents the fundamental position of
the novel, “When would a wife and mother, risk their life,
and more important, their child's life to save a stranger?”
Elise: Did you answer that
Kristin: Yes, because this
was crucial to making the book work. For me, it came down to the
idea, would I want to live in this world or would I rather die than
raise my children in a world like that? This is when I would put
my children’s life at risk.
Elise: Can you compare the
two sisters’ heroics?
Kristin: Vianne did what
a lot of people did, become heroic by degree, one small piece at
a time. She asks herself if she would risk taking her Jewish best
friend’s child and answers yes. She then does it again for
another child and rescues more Jewish children. She was on a dangerous
path even more because there were Nazis living in her house. Her
story was based on a composite of various women who hid Jewish children
Regarding Isabelle, she might have
rescued the airmen because she related to them due to her own abandonment
issues. She was young so she was a lot more willing to upset the
status quo. In some ways, I am not sure she understood her own risks.
I based her story on a Belgium woman named Andrée de Jongh,
an amazing woman who repeatedly risked her life helping British
and American servicemen escape on foot from Nazi-occupied Belgium
Elise: How would you compare
the two Nazis, Von Richter and Beck?
Kristin: Von Richter was
easy to write. He fits the stereotype of what we picture a Nazi
to be. I wanted to contrast him with a character that was a little
more unexpected, Beck. In some ways he was humane, like when he
brought the fake ID for the deported friend’s Jewish child,
Ari. I wrote this quote, “You needn’t worry, Madame,”
he said. “We have been admonished to act as gentlemen My mother
would demand the same, and, in truth, she scares me more than my
general. It was such an ordinary remark that Vianne was taken aback.”
But other times he was cruel as he whipped the Jews going into the
trains headed for the Concentration Camps, or hoarding food even
though he knew Vianne and her children were starving.
Elise: Another conflicting
character were the sisters’ father, Julien?
Kristin: He represented
how those who fought in WWI felt, considering WWII came on the heels
of WWI. The generation of Frenchmen were decimated by the First
War. Bust as things happened in WWII he had to decide if he would
risk his life for his children. This is when he steps into the heroic
Elise: Through Isabelle’s
character you show some of the brutality of the German Concentration
Kristin: I put in this quote,
“They broke my body in the first days, but not my heart.”
When speaking to survivors a theme that comes up time and again
is that their spirit survived. It is impossible to understand what
was done, how the Germans were willing to kill people to further
their beliefs. The ending came out of wanting to show what the risks
were that this family took.
Elise: The role of women?
Kristin: What protected
both sisters were that they were women. There was an assumption
that women could not do these things. The arrogance of the Nazi
soldiers had them assume they had control over everything. Because
they were not looking at women, things went undetected, and they
did not expect the women to step up. It worked really well in the
first years of the war.
Elise: An author once said,
“greatness comes about when people are presented with incredible
problems and are judged on how they will rise or fall.” Do
Kristin: Yes, this is perfect.
I love that because it is a representation of the two sisters. I
hope readers understand what life was like under Nazi rule. How
women did what they did to survive, saving their own lives, their
children’s live, but other lives as well.
Elise: What are your next
Kristin: Out in the fall
of this year is a Netflix series based on my book, Firefly Lane.
I think the production did an amazing job. It is about two women
who became best friends in the 1970s, soulmates for the rest of
There will be a movie from The Nightingale
book. They were literally two days from starting to film in Hungary
when production was shut down because of the virus. The hope is
that filming will start again in September. I read the script for
it and thought it was lovely because it told the story and honored
the characters. I did have input regarding the script. The director
reached out to me for questions. I feel like I was kept a part of
My next book will be out in early
2021. I am embargoed to speak about it but can in two weeks so check
and MyShelf.com would like to thank Kristin Hannah for joining us