The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press) begins with a backstory of an elderly woman in Oregon planning to return to France. At that time we don’t know what her role was in World War II, but figure it was highly traumatic.
Flashback to 1939. Two sisters lost their mother when they were young. Their father is a World War I veteran—traumatized, distant, almost indifferent to their lives. The younger Isabelle is shipped off to various finishing schools where she can’t seem to finish because of her rowdy insubordination. The older, Viann gets pregnant and is married off at the age of 17. Both girls are angry at their harsh father but Isabelle also hates Viann for not taking her in and keeping her in boarding schools.
As the war begins Viann’s husband is ordered to report to the army, leaving Viann alone with their daughter. Isabelle escapes from another school and tries to rejoin her father who owns a bookstore in Paris.
France loses the war and is occupied by German troops. Isabelle, consistent with her rebellious demeanor joins the French resistance and spends the war escorting downed allied pilots through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. Viann’s home is requisitioned by German forces and she is forced to live with a Wehrmacht captain and later a Gestapo or SS officer.
The Wehrmacht guy is pleasant and Viann finds herself attracted to him although nothing ever happens between them. He is killed and an SS officer moves in. The SS man rapes Viann repeatedly up until when the Germans evacuate France in 1944. In the end there is a cute twist of reconciliation and martyrdom that leaves the reader with a warm feeling.
A great read right? Not for me. I was so appalled by the numerous historical errors that I almost put the book down in the second Chapter. Here are a few clear mistakes:
Isabelle is inspired by Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by the Germans for spying early in World War I. According to Isabelle nurse Cavell rescued hundreds of down allied pilots. Nevermind the fact that there weren’t hundreds of allied planes in the air in 1914, she did help some British soldiers cutoff by the advancing forces of the Kaiser return to British lines—perhaps a picky point but if a character was truly fascinated by the story the character would surely know something as basic as who it was Cavell was executed for assisting.
Hannah uses a fictional town, Carriveau, as the setting of her book. Here is where the plotting begins to run into problems. She has Isabelle leave Paris for the south just before the Germans arrive so Carriveau has to be south of Paris and near the Loire valley. But in order for it to be full of Nazis it can’t be in the Vichy zone of France which was not occupied by Germany after the Armistice. Although Carriveau is a small town the writer has to lever a large German contingent in it and therefore invents a Luftwaffe airbase. Why the Germans would establish an airbase south of Paris for the battle of Britain is never explained. Because there’s no explanation—it would have been ridiculous.
Herr Captain Beck is introduced as a Wehrmacht officer but apparently has time to spare for making lists of Jews, homosexuals, and freemasons living in Carriveau. At this point in the war rounding up these “undesirables” was the job of the SS and the Gestapo, not the Wehrmacht. Wehrmacht officers saw postings in occupied France as practically a vacation and were under strict orders from army command to treat French civilians with upmost civility. Hitler hoped that good behavior would minimize resistance. Wehrmacht officers would consider it beneath their dignity to round up Jews.
Certainly occupied France was no picnic for the French and many people went without, but there was essentially no resistance movement to speak of until it began to look like Germany might lose the war. Nevertheless Isabelle seems to be the first kid on her block to join the resistance.
At one point a sympathetic Beck sees Viann’s child is sick, leaves and amazingly returns with antibiotics for respiratory illnesses. Nevermind that oral antibiotics were not available until about 1946.
Ms. Hannah also never once refers to Beck as “German”. He is always labeled a “Nazi” as are all the occupying soldiers. In 1940 only 7 % of all Germans were members of the Nazi party. With military success those numbers did rise, but many Wehrmacht officers who were happy to enjoy the fruits of victory, nevertheless despised the Nazi party and the SS. The German military’s nickname for the SS was asphalt soldiers. From her descriptions of Captain Beck as the nice guy who sneaks additional food to Viann and her family it seems highly unlikely that he would be a true “Nazi.”
At one point a friend of Viann’s daughter trying to escape to unoccupied France has her chest “riddled with bullet holes.” Yet somehow she survives long enough to return to the village and die in her mother’s arms. No adult let alone a child could survive multiple chest wounds from a high powered military rifle or machine gun. A child would be lucky to survive one in the chest, let alone be “riddled.” That’s why they use firing squads to kill deserters. The victim is going to die on the spot.
Central to the plot is Ms. Isabelle’s work in the underground escorting downed allied pilots out of France to the Pyrenees Mountains. Precious little detail is offered on how this is accomplished other than giving Isabelle fake identity papers. There is no mention that the girl has any mountain climbing experience – the Pyrenees are up to 11,000 feet high- or that she was particularly athletic – or what they did with pilots who had been wounded or how they were able to stroll a few hundred miles out of the country.
The book ends with a lovefest gathering of the relatives of pilots “saved” by Isabelle 60 years after the war. The unsophisticated reader is left with the impression that Isabelle saved the pilots’ lives thereby indirectly creating the lives of the pilots’ children who are among the gathering in Paris. The scene is a mirror image of the ending of Schindler’s List.
Has Ms. Hannah never watched Stalag 17 or The Great Escape? on late TV? One would not have to do much research to realize Germany did not shoot captured pilots. Airmen were valuable for intelligence and for the most part they were well treated by the Luftwaffe to the extent that Germany had the capacity to feed and house its prisoners. Keep in mind—Germany was attacking Britain at this time. Did they want their pilots summarily shot after they parachuted into Britain?
Probably the worst howler of all was when Isabelle, while walking around Paris after work one evening, comes upon an RAF pilot in full uniform who relates that he was shot down near Reims and has somehow made his way 140 kilometers into a city swarming with Germans. Did he take a train? Or did he rent a car from Hertz? Hitchhike? This is another point at which I nearly threw the book in the trash, but decided there had to be something to justify “Best Seller status” and 22 other novels by Ms. Hannah.
If you like sweet sentimentality with a memorable plot twist The Nightingale is a good read. If you want historical fiction that is reasonably accurate don’t touch this book.
Steve E Clark is the author of Justice is for the Lonely, a Kristen Kerry Novel of Suspense. And soon to come out Justice is for the Deserving. For more on Steve E Clark and his NYT best selling novels, www.KristenKerryNovelsofSuspense.com
Steve Clark is also a medical malpractice attorney in Oklahoma City at Clark+Mitchell.com