By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton
As Germany began to flex its muscles in 1940, France mobilized. Because of the Maginot Line between France and Germany, most in France felt relatively safe. But the line was no match for the German Blitzkrieg. Paris was soon overrun, its citizens in a frenzied flight for life. German occupation was cruel for many reasons, but primarily because there were a myriad of rules that kept changing or being applied selectively. Two of them were the most onerous and got worse as the war slogged on: the German occupiers claimed most of France’s food, and officers were housed in family homes of their choice.
The mobilization claimed Vianne’s husband, Antoine, which left her alone to raise their daughter, Sophie. Since their community, Carriveau, was near a strategic airfield, a part of the German Army was stationed there, with officers billeted with community families. Consequently, Vianne and Sophie soon had a German officer as an uninvited houseguest. When Vianne’s impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, came into the picture, there was sure to be trouble. Isabelle had no patience with the idea that the French people were best off just accepting the occupation and had no intention of keeping her opinion to herself. At about the same time that Vianne convinced her that she was putting Sophie’s life in danger with her behavior, Isabelle learned that there was a Resistance group working to undermine the Germans. After some work on their behalf around Carriveau, she left for Paris.
Forged papers were necessary just to get around in France, so the partisans found people who could do it. Using a forged identity, Isabelle became the Nightingale, leading trip after trip over the Pyrenees to get downed pilots out of Germany.
Meanwhile, Vianne was desperately trying to deal with her situation. There was little food to be had even with the ration cards. When one German officer mysteriously disappeared from her home, he was simply replaced by one far crueler. After a Jewish friend was hauled away, Vianne began trying to save as many Jewish children as she could.
The story jumps to 1995. Vianne, now an American, has been invited to Paris for a reunion of those who were involved in the Resistance. Her son, an American doctor, doesn’t know her past, but decides he should go with her. Anxious to learn about why his mother would be invited to such a reunion, he asks his mother to start at the beginning. To herself she says, “How can I start at the beginning, when all I can think of is the end?’