In September I vacationed in rural France. Lazy days with extended family; watching the cows in the meadow lumber down to the river; browsing local village markets wishing I could bring the spicy olives, aged cheeses and goose liver pâté back to Washington State; long lunches under the trees that begin at noon and end at three with a nap.
One of the reasons I love France is that history surrounds you. A short drive takes you to a twelfth century Knights Templar chapel, a town fortified against the English in the Hundred Years’ War, and a chateau that hints at pre-Revolutionary grandeur. And not just ancient history. Every town and village have its memorial commemorating the dead of two world wars. The family names inscribed on these monuments testify to repeated losses “pro patria.” France’s World War II story is especially fascinating, divided between German-occupied territory and “free” Vichy France, resistance heroes and Nazi collaborators.
No wonder the Second World War in France has spawned so many novels. Perhaps my favorite is “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Others equally well-known are: “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah, “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay; and “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky. There’s a whole slew of WW2 novels with Paris in the title: “The Paris…Library/Apartment/Architect/Bakery,” “Three Hours in Paris,” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
Several of these novels also deal with the complicated aftermath of war. The conflict in Europe killed or displaced millions of people. National boundaries were redrawn, and an Iron Curtain bisected the continent east and west. Destroyed economies were gradually rebuilt, while, just as gradually, stories emerged of atrocities committed. Many who survived the war never spoke of it, even though they bore lifelong scars.
“…Watching the cows in the meadow lumber down to the river…”
“…Browsing local village markets…”
For my generation growing up in Europe after the war, its shadow lay heavy on us. Although I was born in 1949, I believe the Second World War was the defining event of my life. The reminders surrounded me as a child: bombsites and food rationing; the hobbit humps of buried bomb shelters and expanses of de-commissioned airfields. The war pervaded popular culture too with films like “Dam Busters” (1955), “Reach for the Sky” (1956), and “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). “Reach for the Sky,” the true-life story of flying ace Douglas Bader who lost both his legs in an accident but went on to become a fighter pilot, was the first movie I ever saw—a little too harrowing for a seven-year-old: I ran out of the cinema in tears.
And this was in Britain which had escaped a Nazi invasion. How much more pervasive was the aftershock of war in those countries that had experienced occupation, like France.
The long-term effects of wartime trauma are one of the themes of my forthcoming novel, “Daughters of Riga.” I also wanted to explore how ordinary people could be resilient and even heroic in the midst of the horror. Almost eighty years later, untold stories of that resilience and heroism have disappeared with the generation that endured the war in Europe. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to write historical fiction: to invent narratives and characters that might have existed and give an imaginary afterlife to those who are now dead.