'The Nightingale' Book Review
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked after my sobbing woke him. After wiping away my snotty tears, I answered, “This book,” referring to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. As I lay there crying in the middle of the night, I wondered why I do this to myself. I read to escape, not to feel! I also started to think that Hannah’s story was too perceptive. Hannah must have based The Nightingale on something real. So, let’s talk about Hannah’s inspiration for The Nightingale.
The Nightingale is about how two French sisters, Viann and Isabelle, survive World War II. It has everything a good World War II book should have: pain, suffering, strength, hope, and bravery. The book takes place in the French countryside and Paris. The story also takes us to the Pyrenees, which brings me to Isabelle.
Hannah introduces Isabelle as a wild child, a trouble maker. She is naïve and impulsive and her family doesn’t know what to do with her. After the war starts, Isabelle’s father forces her to live with her older sister Viann. On Isabelle’s grueling walk from Paris to the French countryside she watches as Nazi planes mow down masses of people fleeing Paris. After seeing “a woman fly into the air like a rag doll and hit the ground in a heap,” (p. 45) Isabelle felt compelled to contribute to the war effort. During an argument with her sister she says, “I am not hiding out in the country while the Nazi’s destroy France… Let me tell you want I saw out there. French troops running from the enemy, Nazis murdering innocents. Maybe you can ignore that, but I won’t.” (p. 62) Later Isabelle joins the resistance and volunteers to escort downed Allied pilots across the Pyrenees to Spain.
As it turns out, Hannah based Isabelle’s character on a real woman, Andrée de Jongh. In an interview with the American Booksellers Association Hannah says,
[Andrée de Jongh’s] story was magnificent, mesmerizing, and perhaps most importantly, I hadn’t read about it before. As a bona fide World War II buff, I had read countless novels set during the war, and yet I had never read this particular story; I didn’t know that downed airmen had hiked over the frozen peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in boots that didn’t fit, in coats that were too small, with both German and Spanish patrols searching for them. I didn’t know about the ordinary French and Basque citizens who risked their lives to help the Allied soldiers on this dangerous, arduous journey. As I delved deeper into the research, I discovered a wealth of stories that spoke to me on a profound level. Quite simply, the heroism of the women of the French Resistance captured my imagination. For years, I collected their stories, read their accounts. Then I tossed the magic words into the mix — what if — and I was off and running.
Who Was Andree de Jongh?
In the book, Isabelle’s codename is The Nightingale. In real life, according to the Washington Post, de Jongh was known as “Dédée” and the “Petit Cyclone.” The path through France and across the Pyrenees was known as the Comet Line. In an interview with Goodreads, Hannah explains, “Andrée and her dad started this escape route, and she personally led hundreds of downed airmen over this route and was caught, in actually much the same place Isabelle was caught in The Nightingale. She was sent to a concentration camp and survived. I believe she spent the rest of her life helping others in the Belgian Congo.”
Per Sara Corbett’s New York Times Magazine article “The Escape Artist,” de Jongh actually led 118 Allied soldiers through the Pyrenees. The comet line allowed over 700 more soldiers to escape. Corbett also points out the genius of de Jongh’s Comet Line: “A woman couldn’t carry a gun or fly a bomber jet, but she could walk unnoticed, striding down a street in a wool coat and sensible shoes as if on her way to the market or a typist’s job, trailed quietly by two or three wayward soldiers in disguise.” Consequently, when the Nazi’s caught de Jongh, they refused believe that she was the mastermind behind the Comet Line. As Hannah pointed out, Isabelle has a similar experience:
“‘I am the Nightingale,’ she said, standing on burned, bloody feet. She turned to the German who had tortured her. Schmidt laughed. ‘You, a girl? The infamous Nightingale?’” (p. 373)
For both Isabelle and de Jongh, doing women’s work in war was never an option. In the book Isabelle felt compelled to fight. Her sister on the other hand was more concerned with keeping her daughter safe. As the book progresses, Viann grows to understand Isabelle’s urge to join the resistance and Viann starts a little resistance of her own. After a Jewish child, Jean Georges is left with Viann, she decides to hide him in the orphanage at her church. She asks for Mother Marie-Therese for help. Mother agrees and convinces Viann to save more Jewish children: “‘You are the leader of this now, and if we are risking out lives for one child, we may as well try to save more.’” (p. 328) Viann’s determination to help Jean Georges was my favorite part of The Nightingale. Viann finally realizes that ignoring the war and all the Nazis' despicable actions made her complicit.
Because of moral questions like this as well as Hannah’s thorough descriptions of the struggles both Isabell and Viann had to endure, I found myself getting carried away in my own what-ifs. What would I have done if I was Viann? Could I have done what Isabelle did? (I assure you the answer is no.) I love being wrapped up in a book this way, and I have Hannah’s excellent writing to thank for that. I also appreciated all the historical references in The Nightingale. And I’m glad it got me to look up Andrée de Jongh. Of course, World War II novels are always loaded with interesting history. They are also usually pretty good, which is why I want to know what your favorite World War II books are. Let me know in the comments!
- Button, "A Q&A With Kristin Hannah, Author of February’s #1 Indie Next List Pick."
- Bernstein, "Andrée de Jongh; Belgian Helped Airmen Avoid Nazis."
- “Interview with Kristin Hannah.”
- Corbett, "The Escape Artist."
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's Press. 448 pp.