Sunday, January 9, 2011

Resistance by Anita Shreve

Sometimes you unwittingly get into a pattern of reading books related to a particular topic.  I found this happened with the trio of 9/11 books that I read last fall and now seem to have fallen into this same pattern with respect to WWII.   Anita Shreve is an author known primarily for her tales of women surviving difficult personal issues--be it a bigamist husband in The Pilot's Wife or the responsibility of a newfound baby in Light on Snow .   Her books generally are categorized as "chick lit," a characterization that does not give her writing the credit it deserves.  In any event, I just finished Resistance and it is a powerful novel that goes beyond her traditional tales of domestic lives, telling the story of Belgian resistance fighters during WWII.

This book is really a gem.  As always, Shreve's writing is lyrical and drew me in from the start.  The story begins on December 30, 1943 when an American bomber crashes near a Belgian village.  You immediately are introduced to Ted, the pilot of the bomber, who is full of self-recrimination about the choices he made that led to the plane's crash landing.  Shreve works small facts into the story that give the book an authenticity.  For instance, you learn that there were two types of flight suits in use by airmen at the time to battle the cold of the high altitudes--traditional leather suits (think bomber jackets) and electric suits.  Electric suits worked well while flying but airmen who had to bail out of their planes (or whose planes crashed) who were wearing old fashioned leather flight suits had a better chance of surviving the elements than those wearing electric suits.   

As the village becomes aware of the disaster, people begin arriving at the crash site--some with the simple curiosity that causes drivers to slow down on the highway to peer at an accident, others with more complicated motives.  One of the heroes of the story is a ten year old boy named Jean, the son of a local "collabo" who is ashamed of his father's support of the Nazis.  Jean skips school to search the woods for survivors of the crash and finds Ted,  moving him in a wheelbarrow from the woods to his father's barn where he hides him in a trough and covers him with potatoes until he can find help to move him to safety.
Enter Claire and Henri, a couple who hide Jews and airmen in a secret room in their home until they can be moved to the Maquis, the guerilla bands of the French Resistance.  (I have to admit that this is a term I had never heard of before and apparently one other reader hadn't either as she helpfully wrote the definition in the margin of the book.)  Shreve says of Claire:  "She knew the beginnings of many stories, but not their endings."  Those few words say so much to me about the generosity of the people who provided sanctuary and how difficult it must have been for them to never know the fate of the people they had sheltered.     

The story has a number of twists and turns that keep the reader engaged until the end.  While a novel, it is an educational and thought provoking story.   Reading this book brought back memories of my high school French teacher, Madame Crutchfield.  Madame Crutchfield was a tiny wisp of a woman with gray hair, granny glasses and an amazing wit.  I took private classes from her to work on my French.  (I don't remember the reason why the regular classes didn't work nor do I remember very much French, as my husband likes to remind me whenever the fact that I was president of the French Club comes up for some bizarre reason.)   From time to time, Madame Crutchfield would mention that she worked in the Resistance.  Being the self-absorbed teenager that I was, I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to hear her stories, something that I now deeply regret.  As I was reading the book, though, I thought of Madame Crutchfield as one of the Maquis waiting for the Jews and airmen to be transported to her.   Thanks to Anita Shreve for writing this book and reminding me of this special woman.   

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