by Mario Escobar
In these days of books on World War II and the holocaust being questioned and, in some cases, banned, I would like to suggest this novel. Escobar has given us a view of the French Resistance that is very unique. Although there are instances of sex, and of violence, the reader is not bombarded by them. We clearly see they exist, but the emphasis is on the growth of a young woman in spite of what she has to endure.
We see the events of World War II through the eyes of a French librarian, Jocelyn, who is tasked with the job of protecting the library of her town. We see her passion for protecting all texts, and we also see how the war changes her for the better.
Many Frenchmen went along with the demands of Germany to try to keep the Germans at bay and to save their own lives. Others tried passive resistance. While still others became an active part of resistance. Through Jocelyn’s eyes we meet her husband, Antoine, a policeman for Saint-Malo, who is forced to become a soldier for the French army. We see Jewish shopkeepers like Denis, who lose their businesses and in many cases their lives. We see Catholics, Protestants and Jews working together to try to save their country. We see others, like Mrs. Fave, who turns people into the German occupiers to gain extra food or favors.
We also see two different sides of the German army. One is Adolf Bauman, an S.S. officer who is assigned to live in her house. He is a rabid Nazi who wants to destroy the old history which Jocelyn is determined to protect. Bauman lives for cruelty. The other is Hermann von Choltiz, who is part of the military police of the Wermacht. His job is to find valuable art and books and to see that they are properly cared for and protected, usually by hauling things off to Berlin. He is a Nazi, but he is not interested in killing and enslaving people. He is really doing his job to the best of his ability without causing pain.
Jocelyn tells her story mostly through letters that she writes to the author Marcel Zola, not knowing if he would ever see them and respond. She begins by telling about her wedding and her lack of faith in God. By the end of the book, that has changed and she actually has a deep faith in God. This is NOT a preachy book. It simply shows you Jocelyn and her doubts and questions. Jocelyn takes drastic measures to save the most valuable books. She goes to Paris and becomes a member of the underground with an eye to passive resistance. Once, she is even captured and tortured.
In the end, it was the saviors of France, the Allies, who destroy the library in an effort to root out the Nazis in the area. Even as she is grieving for the loss of her town and her books, Jocelyn speaks the hard truth, “For four years, France had sold its soul to the devil, and he always requires full payment of a debt.”
Escobar tells us this: “Everything is made of words. We would not understand a thing without them. They define our feelings, fuel our ideas, and inspire our faith. Without them the world would be in silence.”
Although this book was written for adult readers, I would not have any reservations about giving it to a teenager who is wanting to learn about World War II. I highly recommend it for all high school and public libraries.