With all the historical fiction that has been written about World War Two and the Holocaust, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, still manages to bring a fresh and entrancing view into this dark time. Set in France from just before the Nazi invasion until the end of the war, The Nightingale tells the story of a Catholic family, and how they respond to the physical and moral challenges of wartime.
The Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that “the personal is political”. Hannah’s book demonstrates in truly sensitive language and detail how the thoughts and actions of the characters are affected and changed by their personal relationships with others. She challenges her readers to reflect on the many shapes of resistance, independence, and survival. Her characters are beautifully developed to reflect a complexity of feeling that prevents them from becoming simple representations of good and evil.
While I was initially skeptical of the author’s use of flashbacks as a literary device, the unnamed narrator’s intermittent interruptions ultimately helped to propel the story forward, and to give the reader a sense of hope as the events of the book became starker. Someone will live. But who? And how? And at what cost?
The Nightingale was voted “Best Historical Fiction” in the Goodreads Choice Awards of 2015. As a rabbi, I particularly appreciated how Hannah depicted the relationships between Jews and non-Jews in France. In this telling, the Holocaust is not only Jewish history, but the destruction of the political, social, religious, and cultural fabric of Europe as a whole. It challenges us to see the myriad ways that people can be tied to one another, and the tremendous strength of these bonds when tested. This is a book that will stay with you and cause you to think about your identity as a citizen of your community, country, and world.