Abigail, by Magda Szabó

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Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson

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I recently posted about Sonia Purnell’s excellent A Woman of No Importance about Baltimore-born Virginia Hall who became one of the first British spies in German-occupied France during WWII. She organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies through the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret UK intelligence agency formed in 1940.

I hadn’t planned on reading Olson’s book about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade who also ran a Resistance operation in France, supplying critical information to MI6, the UK’s Special Intelligence Service. Then my book club chose it.

When her partner was arrested in 1941, Fourcade became head of Alliance, a Resistance network she had helped build. Under her dedicated leadership, Alliance expanded throughout both Occupied France and Vichy France (where Hall was based), providing most notably a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads along the Normandy coast, showing German guns and fortifications, an invaluable aid to the Allies on D-Day.

The story includes escapes, tragic losses, and daring exploits. There’s lots of great information, very detailed.

What I missed was a sense of Fourcade herself. In Purnell’s book we get a close view of Hall, what makes her tick, how she responds to her experiences. In Olson’s book it is more “just the facts, Ma’am.” For example, Fourcade’s hardly ever seeing her young children during the war years for security reasons makes sense, and she didn’t know they’d lost their adult protector and had to make their way alone through war-torn France. But surely she felt a complex swirl of emotions, constantly changing, eating away at her resolution to stay on as head of Alliance. None of that comes through.

One thing that struck me strongly in both books was the infighting. I’m not just talking about Vichy versus Resistance. In the UK, SOE and MI6 were fiercely competitive, trying to deny each other resources, sometimes even sabotaging each other’s efforts. Similarly de Gaulle’s Free French group refused to help Virginia Hall’s group or other French fighters and eventually broke with MI6 as well. Also, one of Roosevelt’s conditions for the U.S. joining the war was that de Gaulle not be in charge of the French forces. He chose instead someone else who was not respected by the French military, making the North Africa campaign a debacle. They were supposed to all be on the same side! It’s a miracle the Allies won the war.

Of course, I see the same thing going on in politics today, in country after country. Too many people who are supposed to be serving the country and doing the best thing for its citizens are choosing instead to maximise their own power and fortune over that of their fellows, not caring how much devastation they cause for their country and its people.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. When I started work in an office, I quickly realised that I could divide my colleagues into those who wanted to do good work and those who only wanted to get ahead. It’s been a useful distinction ever since. Not that I’m entirely cynical. I recently learned of a real Lord of the Flies where the shipwrecked boys marooned on a Pacific Island worked together and took care of each other for 15 months. And we are beginning to learn that cooperation has been just as longstanding and crucial in our societies as competition.

I’m encouraged by Fourcade’s selfless devotion to her country and to the operatives she’d collected. No wonder she was designated as a hero by de Gaulle at the end of WWII.

Are you reading stories—fiction or nonfiction—about courage and selflessness? Suggest a few!

Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead

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I’ve long wanted to know more about Martha Gellhorn. Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings.

At 29, Gellhorn went to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Magazine. She went on to cover the twentieth century’s wars, including WWII and Vietnam, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, only retiring from journalism after covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, when she was 81.

She was desperate to see things for herself, visiting the front lines, talking with soldiers, looking for the little things that would make her reporting come alive. Instead of talking about strategy or interviewing generals, she preferred to write about ordinary people, just as she had in her first job as a journalist. Hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she traveled around the U.S. to learn how the Depression was affecting people. That experience left her with a lifelong commitment to battling poverty by bringing it out into the open.

Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with a strict father, loving mother, and two brothers. Dissatisfied with this conventional upper middle class life and the narrow opportunities it offered for women, she was determined to create a life for herself. And that life was to be a foreign correspondent.

At the time, it was a highly unusual choice for a woman. Throughout her career, men held her back, officials refusing her permits and visas, publishers refusing to hire her, military officers trying to keep her away from the fighting. Even critics, enthralled by her affair and brief marriage with Ernest Hemingway, dismissed her as a pale imitation of her famous partner.

In addition to her journalism and nonfiction books about war and travel, she wrote novels and short stories, though she found writing terribly hard. Moorehead captures her conflict:

Having hitched her vision of herself so firmly to writing, and having inherited from both parents extremely high standards, Martha effectively created for herself a perilous and demanding world. If to write was her duty, her reason for being alive, then not to write was to fail. To fail as a writer was to fail at life, to be adrift in a formless and uncertain universe with nothing to hold on to.

A headstrong woman, she never backed down from the basic certainties she developed in her youth, many of them from her parents. Although she fell out with her father, who was dismayed by her flaunting of convention, shortly before his unexpected early death, she remained close to her mother, whom she called her North Star.

Passionate about her causes, Gellhorn hated dishonesty, cowardice and complacency. Although she sometimes fell out with friends, she was never happier than when hanging out with war correspondents who had become friends when they were under fire together in various hotspots. Moorehead says of her:

Something of Martha’s occasional deaf ear to the sensitivities of other people was connected, at least partly, to her strong feelings about social life . . . the world was divided between real friends—to whom she was, for the most part, very loyal and devoted—and everyone else, who mattered not at all.

Late in life she became the center of a group she called “the chaps”, men and women forty or fifty years younger that she. Writers and reporters who admired her work, which had recently become popular, they flocked to her flat in Cadogan Square. I’m glad that she was not isolated during her last years when her physical woes were mounting.

The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

Have you read any of Martha Gellhorn’s work?

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

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I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear

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As I’ve mentioned before here and here, I’m a fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Besides liking psychologist/investigator Maisie herself a lot—she combines integrity with intelligence, a strong work ethic with a warm heart—I especially like the way Winspear includes the historical context. As the author says:

I wanted to focus on the impact of extraordinary times on the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to use the mystery to give form to the journey through chaos to resolution—or not, as the case may be.

When we first met Maisie, she was rebuilding her life after serving as a nurse in the front lines of WWI. This installment, the 13th, begins with Neville Chamberlain solemnly declaring the start of WWII.

Echoes of WWI and its long tail of consequences pervade this story as Maisie tries to find the assassin of a former Belgian refugee before he or she kills again. As several characters remark, who would take a life at a time when there is so much fear of the killing to come? And why would anyone want to kill this harmless man?

I am reading the books in order; some I’ve read before but I wanted to fit them into the larger framework. It’s been said that a series is like a television show, with each book equating to an episode. The struggle for the writer is to include enough information that a new reader won’t be lost without boring someone who’s read the other books.

It’s a little hard for me to judge, since I’m not coming to it as a newbie, but I think this book would work as a stand-alone. Winspear adds just a sentence or two of background as needed. However, I think the reading experience is considerably deepened by having read the previous books. Most of the characters have appeared before, so prior knowledge helps you better understand their actions and reactions. Plus your emotional commitment to the characters is much greater. For example, some of the children you’ve seen tumbling about like puppies are now old enough to fight in the war.

There are some new characters here as well as old familiars. Among them are Anna, a little girl who has been evacuated from London along with the other “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees, but who has no papers. No one knows who she is and she herself refuses to speak, just as she refuses to let go of her small case and gas mask.

Anna and two other children are billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent. Maisie, who lost her husband and baby only three years previously, finds her heart turning toward the child even as those around her warn that she will only be hurt again when the girl returns to her family.

Maisie also becomes involved in the families of other former Belgian refugees as she pursues the killer, even as their former country faces new devastation.

The threads of the story are tightly woven. What makes a person kill? What makes a family, holds it together, and releases it? How does the past continue to shape the present?

I only have one quibble with this book. Maisie repeatedly uses the expression “It begs the question . . . “ incorrectly. She means “It raises the question . . . “ Where was Winspear’s editor? This common error stood out like a starburst in the midst of the otherwise delightful prose.

The perspective of ordinary people during this liminal time, when war has been declared but the fighting not yet begun, is fascinating. One mother travels with great hardship to Kent to reclaim her sons and take them back to London, even though the schools are closed, even though bombs are expected to fall. But who can imagine bombing before it happens? What parent can bear to put their children on a train to some unknown place with unknown people? I don’t know if I could have done it.

Chaos may not always be resolved, though some small part of it may be. We do what we can.

Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books?

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

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As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

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To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

Lisette’s List, by Susan Vreeland

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In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband André leave their beloved Paris and move to the south of France, to the small Provençal village of Roussillon to care for André’s grandfather Pascal.

Once an ochre miner, Pascal loved paintings whose pigments used his ochre. By exchanging his homemade frames for paintings by destitute artists, Pascal had acquired eight works of art. These paintings have grown in value as the fame of the artists grew, but their worth is beyond money to Pascal. He wants to be sure that André and Lisette understand their true worth and will protect them when he himself is gone.

The story is from Lisette’s point of view, first her misery at leaving Paris and the art world she is just beginning to move into, hoping for a job at a gallery, then her growing love for Pascal and Roussillon. She keeps track of her vows and promises to herself of what she will do in her lifetime.

All too soon, their life in Provence is overtaken by World War II. André hides the paintings before going off to fight, leaving Lisette to manage without his income. When the Germans occupy Roussillon, they are determined to find Pascal’s paintings.

In this final book from the author of books such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia, we have the combination of historical fiction and a deep appreciation of art that we’ve come to expect from Vreeland. Along with Lisette, we are introduced to artists such as Pissaro, Cezanne and Picasso. The descriptions of the paintings and of Provence itself are luscious.

So why did I grow a little bored towards the middle of the story? Partly it was because these artists were not new to me. Partly it was because Lisette, the girl from Paris, seemed to accomplish new things without any trouble at all. Acquire and learn to care for a goat and chicken? No problem. Figure out how to make cheese and candies good enough to sell? Child’s play. She does face some challenges with the Germans and a man in town, it’s true. But I had a bigger problem with the book.

What we expect in a story is a protagonist with an overwhelming need or goal who faces obstacles to achieving what she’s set out to do. We expect there to be an external journey as she confronts these obstacles, as well as an internal journey as she learns more about herself and changes as a result of her inner and outer conflicts. We expect the stakes to be high for both.

The problem for me was that while Lisette certainly had an eventful outer journey, one with high stakes, she didn’t have much of an inner journey. She does have those vows and promises; she does want to be part of the art world, but it all seems rather vague. The stakes are low or non-existent for her inner journey. She doesn’t change by the end of the book. After eleven years, she’s still the same naïve young woman who came to Roussillon.

However, I’m glad I read the book, if only for the descriptions of life in Roussillon and of how the paintings affected Lisette and others. I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about the uses of art in our day-to-day lives, outside of museums and galleries.

What novel about art and artists have you enjoyed?