I have a soft spot for WWII historical fiction. It has, no doubt, the ability to leave my heart completely wrung out. Still, unlike any other medium, a novel allows us to slip into the past, to experience, for example, a shadow of what life would have been like for those living in 1944 in Nazi-occupied France. I get it. The confrontation with humanity’s darkness can leave us feeling uncomfortable, especially when we realize people aren’t black-and-white. People are human, and often we suck. I include myself here, obviously. But is it not this confrontation with humanity’s darkness that gives us a fighting chance to evaluate our own place in the world (our own suckitude) and change the future? After all, most of those living in Nazi Germany or under Nazi occupation were not gun-wielding sociopathic perpetrators but average-people bystanders.
I can not think of the word bystander without thinking of the quote by Yehuda Bauer “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
Anyway, I guess the point I’m making here is a case for historical fiction. WWII historical fiction, but really all historical fiction. If you already love WWII fiction, then you’re going to love While Paris Slept. And if you’re new to historical fiction and scared of the earthquake-like emotions and aftershocks, then let me tell you that this novel is a very gentle way to ease you into one of fiction’s most versatile genres. While Paris Slept does not shy away from the horrors of the war; the forced deportations; the death marches after the liberation of the concentration camps. But at the heart of this novel is love and the magnitude of how the unconditional love of a parent can lead to the bravest, most daring sacrifice of all.
The story begins in 1953 in Santa Cruz, California. Jean-Luc and Charlotte are trying hard not to think about the war (and the life) they escaped nine years earlier when they fled Paris with a newborn child. They are raising their son, Sam, embracing America and everything American. Sam loves the beach, hot dogs, and chocolate chip cookies and doesn’t speak a lick of French. He’s never met his grandparents, and Jean-Luc and Charlotte are virtually estranged from their families. It’s complicated.
In 1944, in Nazi-occupied France, Sarah Laffitte had just given birth when Nazis storm their hiding place. Together with her husband, David, and baby, Samuel, she is arrested and taken to Drancy railway station for deportation. The train is derailed, and railway workers are called in to assist. Jean-Luc is one of those railway workers. Until now, he’s heard only rumors of the goings-on at Drancy when he’s not working. Has seen discarded children’s toys and clothing litter the station and has come to vow to sabotage the Germans in any way he can. When Sarah Laffitte collides with him and presses a newborn bundle into his arms, he takes baby Samuel.
Jean-Luc and Charlotte’s flight from Paris is not without danger (neighbors are informing on neighbors for extra rations), and the two risk everything to get themselves and Sam out of France, first to Spain and then the US. There, they claim Sam as their own. After the war, it never occurs to them that Sarah and David might have survived. But nine years later, Jean-Luc and Charlotte are tracked down. And so begins the question, where does Sam belong. What does justice look like all these years later, and most of all, how can young Sam adapt to the world-altering changes thrown at him?
Despite knowing how parts of this story will play out (after all, historical fiction often provides us with advanced background information), Druart strings a taut line of suspense from page one right until the end of this achingly moving novel. It’s easy to get swept away in the narrative as the love story between Jean-Luc and Charlotte unfolds during the occupation of Paris, while with every page, the drama and stakes build for both couples. Told in dual timelines and from multiple perspectives, While Paris Slept is flawlessly crafted and at every turn engaging to follow. Jean-Luc, Charlotte, Sarah, and David are complex and layered; their pain, hope, desperation, and especially their love for Sam lifting them off the page.
A must read for historical fiction fans and newbies alike.
Book: While Paris Slept
Publication Date: February 23rd, 2021