The Nightingale

9781466850606_p0_v3_s192x300Although 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:

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

9781101875902_p0_v2_s192x300The saddest part of reading Kent Haruf’s latest book – Our Souls At Night – is knowing it is his last. When Haruf died recently, he deprived us of more stories with his trademark blend of philosophy, soul-searching, and good common sense.  Having discovered this author through one of his later books – Benediction – I’ve been back to read his others, but they are not enough.  I will miss him.

Our Souls At Night is a short book – only 179 pages – and easily read in a sitting, but digesting it takes much longer. Seventy year old widowed Addie walks over to her neighbor’s house one day and invites him to spend the night with her.  Louis, a widower and alone, accepts her offer, and each night, he walks over with his pajamas in a paper bag to sleep with Addie.  As they talk in bed, and get to know more about each other’s past, they start a relationship of trust and comfort.

When Addie’s young grandson comes to spend the summer away from his feuding parents, Louis readily adapts to grandfather mode – teaching the boy how to throw a ball, exploring the woods, camping overnight, even adopting an old dog from the shelter.  Addie, Louis, Jamie, and Bonny, the dog, enjoy each other and reawaken the pleasure of just having fun together, despite the snide town gossips.

Gene, Addie’s son, is scandalized by his mother’s actions, and demands she stop seeing Louis.  Why would a seventy year old’s actions be dictated by her son?  How could she give up her last chance for peace and happiness?  Could she risk antagonizing the only family she has?  The ending is true Haruf – leaving the reader with the reality of  choices, while offering possibilities and hope.

So many gems of wisdom dot the short landscape of this book:

(She) feels she has to be a certain way or she’ll be abandoned…

Most people feel uncomfortable to say anything at all…I believe they are failures of character…

(Marriage) is always two people going against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and drama and mistaken understandings.  Except…that isn’t true of you and me…

As always, Kent Haruf has left me with a lot to think about, and ideas I want to discuss…

Related Review: Benediction

Freshman Reads – Required Reading

9czrjGRcEWhen a good friend, and an alumna of Mt. Holyoke, mentioned Americanah as the college’s choice for the incoming freshman class, I wondered what other books were on the agenda for freshmen.  At most colleges new students come to campus ready to debate and analyze the book.   Here’s a short list –

See your school?  Read the books?  Have one to add?

Freshman Summer Reads

  • Duke University: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
  • Tufts Univeristy: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel
  • Cornell University: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • University of Pennsylvania: The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
  • Columbia University: The Iliad by Homer
  • Johns Hopkins University: The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Pennsylvania State University: The Boom by Russell Gold
  • University of Maryland: Head Off and Split by Nikky Finney
  • University of Vermont: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  • New York University:  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

and Berkelely has a Summer Sampler – books not required but a great recommended list: http://reading.berkeley.edu/