Monday, November 12, 2012

A Train in Winter : "A Mom and Me Review"

This month, you'll get a "Mom and Me" two-fer: First, today's post on A Train in Winter, acclaimed biographer Caroline Moorehead's historical recounting of women resisters in WWII occupied France.  Then, on November 27, come on back for our tandem review of Barbara Kingsolver's hot-off-the-presses novel, Flight Behavior.

Find it on Indiebound or Amazon, among others.
Background from Harper Perennial
They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera; a midwife; a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of sixteen, who scrawled "V" (for victory) on the walls of her lycÉe; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to one another, hailing from villages and cities across France—230 brave women united in defiance of their Nazi occupiers—they were eventually hunted down by the Gestapo. Separated from home and loved ones, imprisoned in a fort outside Paris, they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie.

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France.

Drawing on interviews with these women and their families, and on documents in German, French, and Polish archives, A Train in Winter is a remarkable account of the extraordinary courage of ordinary people—a story of bravery, survival, and the enduring power of female friendship.

Mom's take:
"They had learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise." (314)

Reading these words, quite near the end of the book, said exactly what I had been thinking. This is a book full of terror, debasement, betrayal, but also a work of courage, love, forgiveness. And it is a work worth reading, particularly if one has not been exposed to the Holocaust story in a personal way.

Surely there are gruesome passages at which I squirmed and said to myself "How could humans do such things to other humans?" Why would anyone participate? It made me think of what seem unthinkable punishments that have occurred in more recent times. Again, why would anyone participate? The book raises questions about human beings and what defines the word 'human'.

But the courage of the survivors as well as those who did not survive testifies to what
endurance, creativity, depth of feelings, community, mental and emotional focus can produce in humans who are pushed beyond limits.

Sadness was everywhere but especially for the mothers who had left small children behind. Lulu and Madeleine Zani had left babies and were missing their first walking and talking: their children would not know them. "It was a bitter punishment that none had imagined."

So, who were these women and why were they aboard the train? There were 230 of them. They were farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers, seamstresses, a few students, a doctor, a dentist, a midwife, four chemists, a singer, teachers, secretaries. And why were they on the train? They had resisted the occupation of France by the German army.

Forty-nine of the 230 French women on the Convoi des 31000 (the train) returned from 29 months in the German camps. Sixteen women had children waiting for them and 22 of them were reunited with their mothers. But 53 mothers didn't come home, leaving 75 orphans between them.

Sadly, when the women returned home people generally didn't want to hear about the hardships they had endured and, for many of the women, talking about it was too hard emotionally.

The research by Caroline Moorehead is amazing: lots of written materials were located but the authenticity of the book rests for me in the personal interviews with several survivors and/or their families.

And mine:
For me, the first section was a disjointed and often off-putting muddle.  Descriptions of individual women resisters - not to mention their many male family members and fellow-rebels - were brief and so various as to push me out of the text:  no sooner did I solidify one character's identity in my mind than we were off to the next, not to return again until they were killed or boarded the train for part two.  Frustrating.  A hazard of historical writing, perhaps, but a more focused approach, perhaps using ten or so women as signal characters rather than offering just a tantalizing tidbit on each of one hundred or so women, may have yielded a more memorable and engaging first section, in my view.

The last chapter of the first section and the entire second section were much more focused and engaging, mirroring the myriad other accounts of transport in crushingly over-crowded cattle cars and dire circumstances at Nazi-run concentration, work, and death camps.  Such subject matter cannot fail to move any reasonably empathetic reader to horrified anger and even to tears.  This holds true for A Train in Winter as well, although my previous background in the history of this time period made the exercise of reading part two one of  teeth-gritted determination to honor those who died by re-visiting my knowledge in stomach-turning detail.  No shortage of awful events here.

As I was reading this history, Diane Ackerman's work of historical journalism The Zoo Keeper's Wife kept coming to mind, as did Elie Wiesel's harrowingly focused and intensely brief memoir Night and Marcus Zusak's novel The Book Thief.  All these treat related subject matter, yet with the developed central character(s) I yearned for in A Train in Winter.  I can recommend the latter two books without reservation, and Ackerman's as worthwhile for those intensely interested in the subject matter.  My mom says that Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky sprung to mind for her.  If you found any of those titles worthy, A Train in Winter may be the next history book to add to your list.

In a nutshell: We both found this book's content well worth confronting.  For me, the construction of part one and the conflict between how this book was billed and what it actually turned out to be left me frustrated. For Mom, they didn't: she accepted A Train in Winter on its own terms and appreciated it for what it was rather than waxing vexed over what she (we) thought it would be.  As with our collaboration to review our first "Mom and Me" book, The Good Muslim, our conversations about A Train in Winter made reading and reviewing time well spent.

Our mutual thanks to Trish and all at TLC Book Tours for offering this opportunity.


Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, Tignanello handbags, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review/virtual dialogue about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.


trish said...

I just love these reviews! Your different points of view are great to read at the same time, particularly for a book such as this one. The point your mom brought up about part of the women's punishment being removed from their children while their children grew up really struck a chord with me. I can't imagine missing my young child's formative days and coming home a stranger to them. Seems like that would be worse than the concentration camp, since that strikes at a mother's heart and soul.

Thanks for being on the tour!

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

I'm not sure how I missed out on any of your previous Mom & Me reviews, but I enjoyed this very much.

Laurie said...

Thanks so much, Trish and Emily; you're too kind!
And please do offer up any suggestions that come to mind about how to make is feature even more worthwhile and/or unique.

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