To Be a Bird That Sings Aloud

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Eleanor posted on Facebook: The Nightingale is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

The next day, I took my son to the library, and there, on the top of the ‘New Large Print” shelf, was a copy of Kristin Hannah’s new book.  Hey–I’m sixty: I can legitimately borrow the large print books now.

So just like that, I fell off my ‘read all the books on my own shelves first’ resolve.  I took home the large print copy of The Nightingale.

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The Nightingale is a World War II story. It takes place in occupied France, and it is the story of sisters Vianne and Isabelle.  Their lives had already been rent by war; their father returned broken and embittered by World War I, and, when his wife died young of cancer, he sent the girls away.

For Isabelle, the younger,  life became a series of sending-aways.

And then came the second war, and tough, tough, tough choices.  How does one keep children safe?  How does a Christian be a friend to a gold-starred Jew?  Does one resist openly or undercover?  Does one, indeed, resist?

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As a child, I lived in a village butt-up against a little city, and I remember driving to the little city to shop with my mother.  While we were there, a fire alarm went off, a blatting, blaring, ominous sound.  I couldn’t have been more than four, and it must have been the first time I’d heard such a thing, because I asked about it.

Several years later, when we moved to that little city, I noticed that the alarm sound had completely changed.  My mother told me it was because there was a concentration camp survivor living there.  The original gnashing noise was too similar to the sounds of the camp.  The city leaders (and good for them!) switched to a less evocative tone.

My father, who’d served in the Pacific Theater, grunted.  When the War was discussed, he, a survivor, always had very little to say.

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The Nightingale’s historical narrative weaves in and out with the first person reminiscences of one of the sisters–at least, I think, as I read, that the woman looking back is either Isabelle or Vianne.  She is old; she is dying; she has a devoted son.  She has never told the story of her war to the boy.  It seems that, to those who were entrenched in the actuality of World War II, the creating of a new life, the forgetting of the horror, the protection of the children, was the honorable way to live in the post-War years.

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The County Fair had its grounds in that little city where I spent most of my growing up years; the Fair was a kid-magnet during the final week of July. My friend Sandee and I could walk there together; we’d meet friends from our little Catholic school.  We spun dizzily on the Tilt-A-Whirl and staggered over to the fried waffle stand, eating away our wobbles.  We wandered through the long narrow buildings where cows and sheep, bunnies, chickens, and horses, waited to compete for honors.  There was a permanent structure, cement-floored and sturdy, called the Electric Company Building; at fair-time, it housed technology displays.  I could see the latest in canning equipment or small household machinery–vacuums and waffle irons, table saws and drill presses. Outside there were big farm machines, and no one to say, “Don’t climb on those!”

Another permanent building displayed gleaming jars of hand-canned jellies and jams, baked goods with tasting pieces gone missing, hand-sewn wonders, works of fine art.  There, I could look for the ribbons signaling first, second, and third place winners.

I could spend all day at the Fair–a wonder round every corner–and people–oh, the people!–to watch.

So I was shocked to learn, in my seventh grade history class, that the fairgrounds had been a camp for German prisoners of war during World War II.  Those men were well-treated, though, my teacher assured me, and there was a funny mix of pride and bitterness in his tone that I couldn’t unravel. He was about the age of my father, no doubt, a veteran too. Some of the prisoners stayed on, never left, not wanting to return to that other world.

If they lived in our midst, no one ever said.  The healing had begun, the forgiveness–at some levels,– kicked in,  in the early 1960’s.

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In The Nightingale, the tale is confused by the lack of absolutes.  There are heroes among the enemy.  There are villains who should be good guys.

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I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary and wondering how a people could have sat by and let it all happen.  Could you go about your daily business, eat your cookies and study your math, when the filthy smoke from the stacks of the camp wafted to your village?  How COULD they?  I wondered.

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The Nightingale shows us the dilemma of people who want to help and protect and save, and who have to balance those deep desires against, say, a parent’s urge to protect her child.  Some people had unthinkable decisions to make.

Others, like the fat policeman Paul, jumped on what looked like the side of strength from the very get-go.

Yet Vianne and Isabelle have to choose the dangerous way.  One is known for it; one is not.  I wonder how many uncelebrated heroes, people who quietly risked all to save an individual life, are among those I dismissed so easily as craven in my black-and-white delineated childhood.

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We resonate with the horrors of the victims of World War II, the victims of the Nazis and the Gestapo.  They are people we can picture; we can see them at their kitchen tables, speaking to their children–maybe in a different language, yes, but likely a language we might choose to study in school.  Their food would look like ours; we wouldn’t be afraid to eat at their tables, or to spend a high school year as an exchange student, sleeping in one of their homes.

A tragedy, we mutter, trying to comprehend its enormity, and shock and sadness shake us. And we are right to feel that horror.

But today, I pick up the New York Times and read about something like 6500 migrants fleeing through Hungary, into Austria and Germany, running from horrors.  The horror might be a war that threatens to kill them.  Or–it might be poverty so intense there is no relief but death.  Whatever, the brutality is such that it is better to risk possible or probable death–even for those with children and old ones, infants and invalids, to protect,– than it is to stay.

There are horrible brutal things going on, but they are happening to people less familiar, less like me.  I am, now, the person I despised in history. I am the one laughing while breathing the smoke.

But–how can I help?

I will never be a nightingale, but there are still ways.  I read Ben Irwin’s blog today: http://benirwin.me/

I start to think; there ARE things even I can do. I start to make a plan.


Photo of THE NIGHTINGALE from open source Internet images.

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3 thoughts on “To Be a Bird That Sings Aloud

  1. Hello Pam,

    Reading your review makes me feel, I can’t cope with reading this book. As I sometimes watched movies related to concentration camps–they overwhelmed me with emotions. Such horrors which I can’t imagine–people had to undergo. It’s a great tragedy and sadness in the history of mankind. How man becomes a beast? So hungry for power and so full of hatred?

    Life is a mystery.

    Thanks.

    Anand 🙂

    1. And why, Anand, do two people, faced with the same horrors, react in completely different ways? Life IS a mystery, to be sure. I spent today reading about the Syrian migrants and their sufferings–I wish we, as a people, could learn from history. And I DO understand–our reading, I think, needs to lift us, give us hope…

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