Cover image of "The Nightingale," a deeply affecting novel.

When I searched “French Resistance,” turned up 11,485 titles — and that may understate the number of books that have been written about a subject that is one of the most heavily researched topics in 20th Century history. Anyone who has read more than a smattering of what has been published about World War II is sure to have encountered something about the French Resistance. It takes courage for a contemporary writer to undertake yet another book on such well-traveled terrain — and surpassing skill to succeed in crafting a fresh and moving treatment of the topic. Kristin Hannah has done just that in her deeply affecting novel, The Nightingale.

The French Resistance, writ small

Hannah is certainly not the first writer to spin a tale about the topic through the experiences of one person (or in this case, two), but she is surely among the most successful. The Nightingale is the story of two French sisters, Isabelle and Vianne Rossignol. (The surname means “nightingale” in French.) Isabelle, the feisty and headstrong younger sister, is determined to serve her country when Nazi Germany invades France in May 1940. She is just eighteen and single as the war begins, having been expelled from a long string of boarding schools. Vianne, ten years older, is a married schoolteacher and the mother of a bright eight-year-old daughter.

The two sisters live very different lives through the six years of war, apart most of the time but intersecting at crucial points along the way. Isabelle personifies the Resistance. Vianne and her daughter stand in for all those in France who lived and suffered at home. Both characters are well-developed and credible.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015) 594 pages ★★★★★

A culture of cruelty

Unlike some authors, Hannah does not paint a picture of all German soldiers as monsters. Also, though she celebrates the heroes of the Resistance, her treatment of the French people in general is far from kind. The collaborators who dominate the French police are merciless; one in particular proves to be a Nazi at heart. But two Nazi officers play larger parts in the story: a Wehrmacht captain and a colonel in the SS. Though a proud German and at times a willing participant in the Nazis’ vicious treatment of French civilians, the captain has a gentle and compassionate side. By contrast, the colonel embodies all the mean, vindictive traits of Hitler’s chosen few, the “Aryan” men of the sadistic enterprise known as the SS.

Believable characters in this deeply affecting novel

In a world dominated by reason and compassion, the colonel described by Hannah would be considered grossly exaggerated — a figment of the author’s imagination. Sadly, the portrait is all too realistic, as there are innumerable examples of such monsters throughout the history of World War II. The SS fostered a culture of cruelty: these were not men who were “just following orders” — they were willing, even eager participants in the wanton violence and murder that Hitler’s minions wreaked on untold millions of Europeans.

Yes, six million Jews were murdered; as a Jew by birth and a visitor to Auschwitz just twenty years after the end of World War II, I’m intensely aware of that fact. But so were five million other Europeans, not to mention the tens of millions of others who died as soldiers or suffered intense privation of the sort experienced by Vianne and her neighbors. The Nightingale helps us understand the breadth of the horror visited on the world by Hitler and his cronies.

About the author

A former attorney who turned to writing full-time, Kristin Hannah has written 22 novels over the past quarter-century. The Nightingale is the most recent. She is American.

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