The Nightingale (Takes My Breath Away)

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“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Isabelle. Paris is overrun. The Nazis control the city. What is an eighteen-year-old girl to do about all of that?”

In a few simple lines through the mouth of Vianne, Kristin Hannah shows her readers the depth of frustration, impotence (pardon the entendre), and conflict between sisters in the face of unfathomable threat – the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the upending of France as they know it. The Nightingale is the wrenching story of two sisters, one desperate to survive the war, the other committed to fighting it. And yet both are head-strong, iron-willed, and steely-eyed, and both form their own resistance to the evils at hand.

Here is a story told for generations; and yet, Hannah makes it all new. Hers may not be the first story of World War II through the eyes, voices, and toils of women, but it is a magnificent and unforgettable one. And I believe it is the first one I’ve encountered. Here women are the heroes, not just the victims. I felt myself asking over and over again, why is this new? Why do I struggle to come up with a long list of examples of such stories? And then, towards the end of this very book, Hannah turns to the reader and has her protagonist answer this very question:

“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer […]. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

This book had me gasping, covering my eyes, and reading “just one more page”. Truly a noteworthy work. Perhaps I will have read and predicted the Pulitzer Prize winner for the third year in a row?

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