Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
By Caroline Moorehead. (HarperCollins, 394 pages, $27.99)
Amid the brutality of World War II, a community of people in eastern France decided to follow their values rather than their government. When Vichy leaders started rounding up Jews and deporting them to death camps, these people started hiding Jewish children and helping them escape.
The story has been told before, but earlier versions focused on a particular village, Le Chambon, and pacifist pastor André Trocmé, whose work was held up as an example for nonviolent resistance.
Caroline Moorehead's retelling is broader and more nuanced. The rescue effort went far beyond one pastor and one village, involving farmers, clergy and townspeople across the plateau, as well as resistance workers. They hid fugitives in attics, schools and barns and tried to lead them to safety in Switzerland.
The British journalist builds her story on interviews with survivors and deportation records. In a way, she overcorrects, providing so many names that her list of characters can't keep up. Still, she succeeds in drawing the bigger picture. She debunks the simple labels of hero and villain. Even the Nazis' blame is reconsidered.
The vivid narrative takes on a cliffhanger quality as Nazis and collaborators round up rescuers even as the Allies are advancing. Will liberation come in time? Yes, for some.
Moorehead shares poignant letters from prisoners writing home as they await the deportation trains — "If I felt reassured that you would be safe, I would leave with a lighter heart." She traces the aftermath for the children, and finds that their suffering did not end with the war.
It's a rich, haunting account that leaves us with an uncomfortable question: What might have happened if more people had refused to go along?
Topics team leader
By Harriet Lane. (Little, Brown and Co., 261 pages, $26.)
It wasn't until I'd finished Harriet Lane's new novel and was reading the blurbs on the book jacket that I learned it was a thriller.
A literary thriller, maybe, but one set on simmer rather than boil.
From the first paragraphs of Lane's lyrical book, it's clear that something isn't quite right. We follow two main characters — Nina, an accomplished painter, and Emma, an overwhelmed mother of two — as their intimately documented lives collide. But just under the surface of everyday life, a vague sense of threat builds.
Slowly, methodically, Lane peels back the layers of what seems to be — and what seems to have been — to reveal how a small slight fueled an all-encompassing need for revenge. There's no thriller-style plot twist as the end, only an almost insignificant act. Still, you have the thriller reader's regret: "I should have seen this coming. I should have known."
Nina deftly explains why this haunting book succeeds so well. Final plot twists, she complains, are often unsatisfying, "nothing like life, which — it seems to me — turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings or disappointments, the things that it's easy to overlook."
Senior editor for lifestyles