A quick summary might make Maggie Paxson’s “The Plateau” sound too earnest to bear. Paxson is an anthropologist who wants to study peace, a topic even she acknowledges is “bland.” She learns of a tiny plateau in south-central France called Vivarais-Lignon with a centuries-long history of sheltering refugees. She decides to study it.

This probably sounds like fodder for a nice dissertation. Maybe a little more when you hear that the book’s core involves heroic sacrifices made to save children during the Holocaust. Maybe a little less when you find that it’s also part inward-gazing memoir.

But something surprising and beautiful happens in these pages. Paxson braids those strands of history, philosophy and reflection into a book that is precious and powerful.

Maybe it works because Paxson is writing from a place of anguish herself: For years, her studies involved exposure to “shattering” levels of violence. “Then, I snapped.” This is no academic exercise; she’s writing to save her own soul.

Paxson is a descriptive essayist who can make readers feel the chill of a wintry French gale or the airlessness of a boxcar headed to a German death camp or her own heart breaking as she confronts other examples of human depravity, many involving refugees from around the world who find themselves at the Plateau. She’s evocative without being flowery, philosophical without being weighty.

And political? Not overtly. But this morning’s headlines are right beneath the surface as she talks about children being hauled away or nationalist notions that lead to such atrocities: “No country is made of a pure kind of human; no border — however high or however intimidating the barbed wire wrapped around it — surrounds a real thing. It’s a fairy tale to think it does.”

Some readers might not like the way she meanders from topic to topic, but she never really loses her focus. She does ask deep questions about many things, and, as she says, “the more things you think are important when you ask questions — the harder it is to make an elegant little equation your answer.” But she wants us to feel the power of the words etched in a Plateau church: “AIMEZ-VOUS LES UNS LES AUTRES.” Love one another.

Her admonition arrives in an anger-filled nation where refugee children are being crowded into camps and washing up dead on our borders. Paxson might have started writing as a form of self-therapy. But we’re the ones who can feel saved, and inspired, by her healing words.

 

Michael Merschel is former books editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of the novel “Revenge of the Star Survivors.”

The Plateau
By: Maggie Paxson.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 358 pages, $28.