Thursday, February 14, 2013

Heroes Come in All Sizes

There seems to be a theme developing in my reading this year - every book I've read so far (except The Little Prince) deals with war. They've all been touching, but I think the one I finished this morning - Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott - may be the most emotionally-affecting yet.

The protagonist of this story is a young (very young - the age of my students) American pilot, Henry Forester, who is shot down over France while on a bombing mission. Fortunately for Henry, he's landed among people who don't support the Nazis, and thus begins an effort by French Resistance workers to help him escape from France back to England via Spain. The story builds tension as Henry goes from one contact to another, always in fear of being discovered by the Nazi soldiers who seem to be everywhere.

Once again, fiction has taught me something about history I didn't know before. (I'm beginning to wonder - did I learn ANYTHING in school???) Maybe I had heard of the French Resistance, but I knew nothing about them. This story, based on the true story of Elliott's father, gives me a great deal of respect for the danger these people put themselves in to rescue and smuggle stranded American and British pilots through France, as well as their tenacity in harassing the occupying Nazis. There is one section of the book in which Henry has finally been captured by the Gestapo and is being "interrogated." Now, this is a young adult novel, so nothing is too graphic, but the cruelty of Henry's captor is chilling. Imagine people who would willingly make themselves targets for that kind of cruelty in the service of a cause rather than taking the easier path of simply bearing up under the occupation and waiting for it to be gone.

Something I appreciated about this story was that the French Resistance heroes came in a variety of forms. Of course, there were the maquis, the men - well, usually teen boys, since their fathers had been shipped to Germany and forced to work in munitions factories - who did the fighting and blew up the railroad bridges. But I was surprised by how many women were heroes in this story - all kinds of women. There was the young woman who pressed a passionate kiss on Henry to hide his face from Nazi soldiers at the train station. There was beautiful Madame Gaulloise, who flirted and sweet-talked her way past border guards. There was the widowed housewife who hid Henry - and contraband weapons - in her barn. There was Claudette, who had the spirit to be a maquis fighter herself if her sex hadn't prevented it. Besides the women, though, there was even the smallest of heroes - 8-year-old Pierre, who came walking up to claim Henry when he had no idea who his next Resistance contact was supposed to be. As Elliott points out in her author's note, all these characters - even little Pierre - are based on real (although usually nameless) people involved with the Resistance.

One of the things that was most affecting about this book is that the characters disappear out of the storyline just as they disappeared out of Henry's life when he went to his next contact. Yet he doesn't forget them, and neither can we. But there's no neat literary resolution of the tension, like an epilogue, that tells us what happened to Madame Gaulloise or Claudette. And that's reality. I did see that Elliott has written a sequel that has Henry returning to France to look into what happened to the people who helped him. I guess I know what my next Amazon purchase will be!

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