Tag Archives: Women in World War II

“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

  “I’ll be brave,” she said. “You just tell my sister that she needs to start being afraid.”

                                – Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

As much as The Nightingale is a story of the Second World War, it’s not about the conflict itself: the book has very little to do with soldiers, weapons, generals and presidents and leaders, battles lost and won. Instead, Kristin Hannah’s novel focuses on those trapped in the midst of war, and yet always on its periphery: the noncombatants, those left behind when the men went off to war, who must struggle for survival in a homeland that has become enemy territory. In particular, it is the story of two sisters, as different as night and day, and through them, an exploration of two opposing yet equally valid expressions of heroism. It is a novel of love and courage, sacrifice and survival, regret and redemption, and all of the myriad forms they can take.

In the summer of 1939, Viann Mauriac (nee Rossignol) has come through years of tragedy and heartbreak to build an almost idyllic life for herself out of the wreckage with her husband and daughter. She knows war and upheaval are coming (how can she not?), but she refuses to even think about it, instead clinging to what she has with both hands, paralyzed with fear and desperate to preserve her fragile joy. Nearly ten years her junior, her sister Isabelle has spent most of her nineteen years in boarding schools; their father was such in name only, utterly broken by his experiences in the previous war, and therefore completely unable to care for the girls after his wife died. Viann in turn was too young and too lost in her own grief to take on the maternal role that Isabelle needed, and withdrew deeper into herself even as Isabelle lashed out in a desperate plea for attention and affection. Their relationship is riddled with deep, yawning fissures, with a great deal of pain and hurt over the years on both sides: rarely inflicted intentionally, but there nonetheless. Now on the verge of adulthood, Isabelle is outspoken, headstrong, and utterly fearless; she is frantically searching for a purpose in life, to be wanted and needed by someone, anyone. She doesn’t exactly welcome the war, but she yearns to throw herself headlong into it, to contribute and be a part of something larger than herself.

Then war does come, and with it the German occupation of France.

As The Nightingale makes clear, resistance to the Nazis was largely the work of women, because who else was left to do the job? Who else was above (or rather, beneath) suspicion? Certainly not a young, pretty girl, flirtatious and full of life, or a quiet, obviously terrified mother, whose only seeming concern is the safety and well-being of her daughter. I spoke at length on this topic last year in my review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, but men in war-torn France were just as likely to overlook the women in their midst as their counterparts were during the American Civil War, and so both Viann and Isabelle, in their own individual ways, are compelled do what no one else will, what no one else can. They must walk through the crucible of war and occupation, and neither emerges unscathed.

Isabelle, all fire and lightning and rebellion as the novel opens, has cocooned herself in an almost impenetrable armor to hide a marshmallow-soft center, and a desperate craving for love, acceptance and affection. Viann is just the opposite, sweet and soft and yielding, but all of her candy-floss pliability is wrapped around a steel core, unknown even to herself. Isabelle is absolutely fearless, primarily because she feels that she has nothing to lose or hold her back; she is a young, unfocused girl, searching for purpose and meaning. The war and the necessary work of the Resistance gives her that, and so she flings herself into the cause unhesitatingly, willing to risk everything for the chance to make a difference. Viann begins the war terrified, afraid to lose her happiness, happiness she has clawed from a morass of loss and despair. As result, her initial instinct is to keep her head down and remain unnoticed, to hide and protect her daughter, and only gradually does she find the courage to subtly, covertly stand up for what is right. Separately, Viann and Isabelle discover what is worth dying for, but even more importantly, they come to decide what is worth living for: the reasons to survive and to continue surviving, no matter the costs – and the costs are devastatingly high.

It’s a brutal and heart-breaking world they find themselves in, and yet there is still the capacity for joy and compassion after and even in the midst of great pain and suffering. There is love throughout the novel, in all its many forms: love found, love denied, love blighted, love lost and love regained. It is in the little things (that are much larger than they first appear), small moments of love and kindness, that the women of France find and maintain hope that there is still something good in the world, from Viann’s daughter Sophie offering to don the Yellow Star in solidarity with her best friend, to an anonymous policeman protecting Isabelle from her own curiosity, warning her to not question events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up to closely. Love provides the impetus for each woman to go to incredible lengths to survive, and to ensure the survival of others. It’s through love that Isabelle finally finds the meaning she has spent her life searching for, and the same allows Viann to open her heart to others beyond her immediate family circle, to become a part of something much larger than herself, and to discover her own particular brand of courage.



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“The Girls of Atomic City” – Denise Kiernan

While reading The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, I surprised even myself with the strength of my response to the book: part anger at the way the world used to work, part appreciation at how much has changed.  I had to constantly remind myself that it was a different era, and that it isn’t fair to apply modern standards to past events.  Beautifully written, and an absolutely fantastic read, but it still was unsettling to see what my life could have been like, not too long ago.

Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II, and more specifically, the story of the women who lived and worked there, making the atomic bomb possible.  Thousands of civilians (most of them female) worked in secrecy for over two years, hidden from the outside world, and told nothing about the jobs they were doing.  Workers knew enough to perform their assigned tasks, and no more.  Questions were forbidden; curiosity frowned upon.  Even those who did manage to piece together a few suspicions didn’t talk about their conclusions.  The simplest social cues became fraught with unintended meaning: asking a friend or spouse “How was your day?” could cause serious problems.  All of this secrecy and silence, on top of the pressures and difficulties of war that the rest of the country dealt with on a daily basis.

As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how well I would have fared in such an environment; could I have done what these women (and men, too) did?  I honestly don’t know.  We live in such a different age, a more cynical one, less inclined to take things at face value and more inclined to question everything we’re told.  In a society accustomed to information overload, I don’t know that I could have stood having such a sudden paucity.  Constrained silence isn’t my style, either; I love to talk, and very often speak before I think – another facet of life at Oak Ridge which only increases my admiration for these remarkable women.

The anger I described in my first paragraph comes purely from the fact that this is an accurate snapshot of the period – and all the casual and ingrained sexism that comes with it.  To take one of the more egregious examples, Jane Greer, one of the statisticians who tracked production at the Y-12 plant, initially wanted to be an engineer.  However, while registering for courses at the University of Tennessee, she was yanked out of line and told that females weren’t allowed to matriculate in engineering.  Instead, she could study statistics.  This was just one example among many in the book – situations where these ladies handled themselves with incredible grace and poise, whereas I doubt I could have managed such sangfroid in their shoes.

Okay, rant over; I’m going to step down off my soapbox, because this really isn’t what the book is about.  The treatment of women as second-class citizens, pervasive as that attitude is throughout the era, was only one aspect of life at Oak Ridge.  For the most part, Kiernan’s cast of characters persevere, working around or through this mindset as best they can, and ignoring what they cannot change.  It’s the fault of the historical setting, nothing more.  Moving on.

I loved this book.

It’s a fascinating read, peering behind the veil of secrecy and classified information, but at times a frustrating one.  Kiernan has deliberately constructed her narrative to reflect (at least partially) the same sense of compartmentalization that dictated every aspect of life at Oak Ridge during the war.  Code names are everywhere, and even uranium and plutonium are never described by their proper names, at least until the “Girls” discover (to some degree, anyway) exactly what they were doing for over two years – which doesn’t occur until the bombs are dropped on Japan.  In between narrating the lives of individual women, Kiernan places the work at Oak Ridge in the larger context of both the scientific discoveries that led up to the bomb, and World War II making the bomb a necessity.  Again, the focus is on the female contributions, and the story is usually told through their eyes.  Men aren’t ignored­, far from it – they make vital contributions and are important characters, but this just isn’t their book.

Overall, it’s a remarkable story, one not really told until now; a more nuanced look at the “Rosie the Riveter” image.  By the end, you really care about the women – their stories are occasionally sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining.  After the war, some left Oak Ridge; other stayed and made their lives in what was supposed to be a temporary installation.  Amazingly, most of the “Girls” mentioned by name are still alive, and Kiernan was lucky enough to interview them in writing her book.  As with other World War II veterans, however, they are growing older, and their experiences will vanish with them.  This is a story that needed to be told, now, before it’s too late.


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