Although Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale has hovered on the New York Times top ten for a while, I resisted reading this story of German-occupied France during World War II. Maybe I wasn’t ready for the angst of another Tatiana de Rosnay like tale of two sisters who join the Resistance, one wholeheartedly, the other reluctantly. Other Hannah books have always engulfed me in tears – Homefront, Night Road, Winter Garden – and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for horror and angst. But when an old friend urged me to read the book, so we could talk about it – I did – and all my expectations were met.
Hannah’s descriptions of torture and cruelty are difficult to fathom, but a reminder of how horribly Jewish prisoners were treated. The complicity of the Vichy government is a major character, along with the two sisters – Isobelle and Vienn who each fights in her own way to obstruct the takeover of France, and protect her family.
The historical novel is based on a conglomeration of stories, but two real heroines stand out as the inspiration for the two main characters. Andrée de Jongh, a 19 year old Belgian, like Isobelle as the nightingale spy for the Resistance, was inspired by World War I heroine Edith Cavell. De Jongh established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain. In The Nightingale, young and beautiful Isobelle leads downed pilots over the mountains to safety in San Sebastian.
Her sister, Viann, hides Jewish children in a Catholic orphanage until they can be reunited with their families after the war – close to the real story of Irena Sendler, who smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hid them in orphanages or convents. Sendler made lists of the children’s names and family connections and hid them in jars in her garden – just as Vienn did in The Nightingale – so that someday she could find the children and tell them who they were.
Hannah tempers the misery with some romance and adventure, and the story is compelling. Once started, I found it hard to stop, but the novel left me bereft, despite the somewhat happy ending.
Reviews of Other Hannah books: