I recently completed the audiobook version of The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, a big story about France during WWII; but within, a smaller story of two sisters and the ways they survived the terrible deprivations while contributing to preserving kindness and humanity throughout.
One sister, brash and willful Isabelle, ends up escorting downed allied airmen over the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain. This part is based on a real story. She delivers over 100 servicemen to freedom before she is captured and sent to Ravensbrook, a German POW camp for those who aided the enemy. Sister Vianne meanwhile, manages at her small farm in Carriveau, as a school teacher and mother to Sophie. As the war progresses, Vianne finds her own ways to resist the enemy by working to save Jewish children from deportation and certain death.
I have read many novels and nonfiction works about the WWII era. The idea of human perseverance in the face of such terrible cruelty and relentless hardship inspires me with admiration and awe. At the same time I also wonder about the Axis powers – what motivated them? How could human beings participate in such an evil plan? The whole conflict is a giant cautionary tale.
There have been many other conflicts and disasters throughout time, and sadly, there continues to be in many parts of the world. I have to wonder then, when I hear current voices describing the culture of the United States in terms like, “It’s the worst time in history,” or similar hyperbole, I have to wonder. Do we not know what the “worst time” really looks like?
The last chapter of The Nightingale culminates in a very satisfying end. The heroes of this story were the “powerless” French women left to fend for themselves during a time of unimaginable hardship. For years. Their lives took a dreadful turn and they made decisions that no person should ever have to face. The fact that they, and many other victims persevered at great cost fills me with hope and gratitude.
History provides us with perspective. To ignore it places us at risk at repeating the same mistakes. But in the grander scheme, it is the little stories that give life meaning. A world preserved with no human kindness and compassion is not much of a world. Read The Nightingale. Read a history book! And enjoy your life today. It could have turned out much differently but for the millions of little stories.