In love we find out
who we want to be.
In war we find
out who we are.
The horrors and heroes of World War II produce remarkable stories. Even though The Nightingale is fiction, it is based on fact. In a sense, it’s the women’s side of the war.
The French women who remained behind as their husbands moved to the front lines in 1939 were women of unspeakable courage. They were wives, mothers, teachers, bakers, and friends. They became silent experts at talking with their eyes. They escorted downed Allied pilots to safety. They stretched meager rations of food for days, and made clothes for their still growing children from curtains and quilts. They became survivors and prayed to forget the terrible things they had endured and even done under the guise of survival. They walked with their heads bowed, hid in the shadows, outwitted guards, held their breath and even sacrificed their beds. It makes one question which is worse, to die in battle, or to live and battle repulsive memories for the rest of one’s life.
The Nightingale primarily follows two French sisters, who are nearly always at odds with one another. Separated as girls after their mother’s death, and their father’s refusal to care for them as he battled demons from the first World War, the two grow up distant and detached.
Cautiously, Vianne settles into a quiet, demure, and gracious personality. She’s content living in the countryside with her husband Antoine and their young daughter. Isabelle, on the other hand, is a rebel, and takes pride in losing count at the number of finishing schools from which she has been dismissed. It seems that the two sisters are destined to be dynamically different until war brings them together.
When Vianne’s husband departs to fight against Hitler, Isabelle sweeps in from Paris to offer aid to her estranged sister. But her aid is unwanted, unwelcomed, and unsolicited. Within hours of her arrival, there’s an argument. Eventually, a German soldier commandeering Vianne’s house is at the middle of the argument. Never one to be silent, Isabelle warns her sister about allowing the enemy to bed down in her farm house. Vianne vehemently replies that she has no choice. It is the first of hundreds of choices that are simply eradicated as the war continues.
As the novel opens, the reader is uncertain of the storyteller’s identity. But the opening line is tremendously captivating, and therefore, readers are attracted. “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”
As the war continues, the sisters part ways. There is too much animosity in a household already brimming with tension. On two separate fronts, however, the women work underground for the same end result. Vianne summons the strength to save orphaned Jewish children. There’s a ruse, a few hideouts, and a miraculous amount of help from a charitable orphanage. Isabelle keeps her distance from her sister. It’s a matter of protection, as if anyone was safe. Isabelle joined the Resistance. She passed papers from one unknown hand to another. Land led dozens of injured pilots across the Pyrenees to rejoin their units. Heroic is an understatement.
The constant weight of life-and-death choices take their toll on the differing sisters in similar ways. Aside from the usual consequences of physical exhaustion, hunger, and fright, there is a war experience that is unbearably lonely.
Under the dark sky, Vianne accompanies her Jewish neighbor to the border in an attempt to cross with forged papers. Before there is time to think, there is gunfire. A girl is dead. A surviving toddler screams for his mother, who must flee immediately or lose her chance to live. There, on that atrocious night, the idea of saving the children is birthed. Vianne is weary. How can she even put one foot in front of the other? With blood caked to her threadbare dress, she buries her best friend’s daughter. She adopts her best friend’s sister. And she speaks to no one. Keeping secrets is exhausting. Baring secrets is deadly.
Author Kristin Hannah poignantly writes that “Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA, and remains forever a part of us.” The New York Times bestselling author nails her words with biting precision. For readers, there’s a post-read discussion regarding which sister acts in the most heroic fashion. Yet both lay claim to valiant bravery. Meek and mild carry just as much credence as bold and brawny.
The Nightingale is full of wartime desperation as well as determination. With countless stories still to be told, surely there are an equal amount of lessons to be learned. In the end, as the author writes, “Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”