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The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

July 25, 2016

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.   St. Martin’s Press (2015),  440 pages

4 stars

An engaging historical fiction featuring women enduring Nazi occupation in rural France during World War II by a best-selling American woman.

Kristin Hannah was born in 1960 although she looks much younger in her publicity photograph.  After attending the University of Washington Law School, she practiced law before embarking on a prolific writing career.  She has published 22 novels  and received numerous literary awards.  In The Nightingale, she exhibits the qualities that make historical fiction appealing to many readers.  Her writing is always clear and accessible.  Her plot is full of exciting action and includes some romance.  I consider hers the best kind of historical fiction.  Instead of changing what is known about the past, she moves into the gaps we will never be able to document and uses her informed imagination.

The Nightingale tells a story often overlooked in mainstream fiction: that of women living and raising families in the middle of war zones.  Vianne lives in the Loir Valley west of Paris, a region under the control of the Nazis during World War II.  Her husband is away fighting the war and later is a German prisoner.  She must face the horrors of occupation alone with her small daughter.  Her younger sister, Isabel, is single and somewhat estranged from her. She is single and becomes involved in the dangerous activities of the French underground.  Both women, and other women in the novel, are strong and capable of taking risks for others under the noses of their occupiers.

This was a perfect book to be reading while I am down with a bad cold.  It was diverting and not demanding.  Set in wartime, there were numerous descriptions of death and useless harm.  (I simply skipped some of the pages about concentration camps.) Yet the overall mood of the book is life-affirming.  Survival was never inevitable, but a worthwhile goal even in the depths of destruction.  The women could be stronger than anyone assumed.  We may long for others to care for us, but when necessary women can take care of ourselves and others.

I recommend this book to all those who enjoy traditionally written historical fiction and to those interested in the particular risks and strengths that women experience when war on their doorsteps.

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