75 pages 2 hours read

Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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The Nightingale is a bestselling historical fiction novel written by Kristin Hannah and published in 2015. The story, which takes places in France during World War II, was inspired by the life and memoirs of Andrée de Jongh, a Belgian woman who survived the war and organized the Comet Line, an underground effort that allowed countless downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi capture and make their way to safety. Exploring themes such as family loyalty, the power of the human spirit, and the will to survive, The Nightingale debuted to overall critical acclaim.

The novel tells the story of two sisters, Isabelle Rossignol and Vianne Mauriac, as they struggle to survive the Nazi occupation of France. Vianne’s story begins in August 1939, just before France declared war on Germany. Vianne was effectively orphaned at age 14 when her mother died and her father—still traumatized by his experiences in World War I—sent her and her younger sister to live with hired help. As a result, Vianne clings tightly to the family and peaceful existence she has established in the countryside town of Carriveau. However, when her husband Antoine is conscripted, Vianne is left alone with their 8-year-old daughter Sophie.

Meanwhile, Vianne’s rebellious 18-year-old sister Isabelle is away at finishing school. She gets expelled in the summer of 1940 and travels to Paris to rejoin her father, Julien. Shortly after she arrives, however, they receive word that the German army is approaching Paris, and Julien instructs his daughter to go to Vianne in Carriveau. On her way, Isabelle meets a young communist named Gaëtan, who tells her he plans on joining the fight against the Nazis and invites Isabelle to come with him. Isabelle eagerly accepts, but when she confesses her love for him, he leaves her near her sister’s house, telling her she is “not ready” (79).

The Germans soon occupy Carriveau, with one officer—Captain Wolfgang Beck—billeting in Vianne’s house. Vianne largely tolerates the German presence, fearing for the safety of Sophie and feeling overwhelmed without Antoine, whom she now learns is in a POW camp. When Beck asks, she even provides him with a list of the communist and Jewish teachers at the school where she works, leading to the firing of her neighbor and best friend, Rachel. Isabelle, on the other hand, resents the occupation and is eventually caught defacing a Nazi poster. The people who catch her, however, are members of a resistance movement, and they put her to work distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

In the spring of 1941, the group asks Isabelle to deliver a letter to a contact in Paris and then stay there as a courier. Isabelle agrees, and her father—who is now working for the German high command—grudgingly allows her to stay in his apartment. As she returns home one day, she comes across a British pilot who has been shot down. Knowing that the resistance is working on a plan to help downed Allied airmen escape the country, she brings the pilot to a meeting. She also proposes using the Pyrenees as an escape route, explaining that a family friend comes from a family of goat herds who cross the mountains routinely. Ignoring the dangers, Isabelle volunteers to lead the group herself. Around the same time, she reencounters Gaëtan—now an important member of the resistance network in Paris—and learns that her father works for the group as well, using his position to forge documents.

Carrying false papers identifying her as “Juliette Gervaise,” Isabelle leads a group of four pilots to a town on the border of France and Spain. Here, she contacts her mother’s friend—Micheline Babineau—and arranges for a guide to lead them across the mountains. After several grueling days, they make it to the British consulate in Spain, where Isabelle explains what she accomplished, asks the British government to help her going forward, and receives a code name: “the Nightingale.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Carriveau worsens. In June 1941, Vianne is fired from her job when she questions why another teacher is being arrested, and she spends all the money she had in savings. The following winter, she grows sick after giving most of the available food to her daughter, and she agrees to accept help from Captain Beck only for Sophie’s sake. By the summer of 1942, the Germans are sending foreign-born Jewish citizens to concentration camps, and Beck—who has grown close to Vianne and expresses misgivings about the Nazis’ plans—warns Vianne the day before the deportation in Carriveau is scheduled to take place.

Vianne accompanies Rachel and her children to the border with Vichy France, hoping the family can sneak into the Free Zone. Rachel’s daughter Sarah is shot in the attempt, however, and Rachel is caught the next day and deported. She begs Vianne to take her toddler son, Ari, and Vianne agrees; Beck then helps her procure false papers claiming Ari is Daniel Mauriac, the orphaned son of her husband Antoine’s cousin.

Elsewhere, Isabelle continues to lead groups of airmen across the Pyrenees. In the autumn of 1942, she travels to Carriveau for a meeting, but while there, she, Gaëtan, and a member of the local resistance find a wounded American pilot and hide him in Vianne’s barn. The pilot dies, but before Isabelle can leave, Beck (who has been searching for the pilot) searches the barn. There is a struggle, during which Beck and Isabelle shoot one another, and Vianne strikes Beck with a shovel. Beck dies, and Gaëtan disposes of both his body and the pilot’s. He then takes Isabelle to a safe house to recover, and the two finally consummate their relationship.

Back in Carriveau, an SS officer named Von Richter questions Vianne about Beck’s disappearance before announcing that he will be billeting with her. As the Germans ramp up their efforts to deport the town’s Jews, Vianne begins to work with the local resistance to hide Jewish children in a convent orphanage. When Von Richter learns that Ari is not Vianne’s biological child, she is forced to sleep with him in exchange for his silence.

In May 1944, Isabelle is arrested, tortured, and questioned about the identity of “the Nightingale.” Her father hears of her imprisonment and turns himself in, claiming to be the Nightingale in the hopes of saving Isabelle’s life. He is subsequently executed, and Isabelle and Madame Babineau (who was arrested in the same raid) are sent to Ravensbrück—a concentration camp for women.

As the tide of war shifts against the Nazis, Von Richter grows more abusive towards Vianne; by the time the Germans leave Carriveau in the fall of 1944, Vianne is pregnant. Antoine returns home roughly a month later, and Vianne does not tell him about Von Richter, pretending, instead, that the baby is premature.

Early the following spring, Micheline and Isabelle—now sick with pneumonia and typhus—are sent on a forced march to another camp. Meanwhile, Vianne and Antoine try to learn the fates of Isabelle, Rachel, and Rachel’s husband Marc. They learn that Rachel and Marc are dead, and Vianne provides aid workers with a list of the 19 children she hid. It does not occur to her, however, that she might be forced to give up Ari, and she is devastated when two men arrive to take Ari to relatives in America. Later that spring, Isabelle finally returns to Carriveau. She is ultimately too weak to recover, however, and dies shortly after being reunited with Gaëtan.

Vianne’s and Isabelle’s stories are interspersed with scenes from 1995, as an elderly woman living in America debates whether to return to Paris for an event commemorating WWII passeurs (human smugglers). It eventually becomes clear that this woman is Vianne, and that Julien—the son who ultimately accompanies her to Paris—is her child by Von Richter. Julien knows virtually nothing of his family history until the memorial, after which Vianne is approached by both Gaëtan and Ari. Vianne promises to tell Julien about her and her sister’s experiences during the war, but she privately resolves to keep the truth about his parentage a secret.

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