Book Report: Vive la France!

Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve immersed myself in WWII Europe after promising myself I wouldn’t go back. And it looks like my tour has been extended.

Some years ago, I read All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, Life After Life, The Book Thief, and The Alice Network. I even worked my way through Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. And I read my good friend Wilma Counts’ In Enemy Hands, which I heartily recommend. However heroic these female characters were, the stories, settings, and circumstances were simply too harrowing, too grim, too sad. I needed a break.

Then recently, Code Name: Helene by Ariel Lawhon crossed my path and oh, my! What a cracking good story. Better yet, it’s a true one.

The heroine, real-life Australian journalist Nancy Wake was living in Europe. She first volunteered as an ambulance driver then guided refugees out of Occupied France. Threatened with her own arrest by the Gestapo, she threw herself off a moving train and escaped over the Pyrenees. Once in London, she was recruited by British Special Ops and parachuted back into France. Her mission? To keep the Allies apprised of what was happening on the ground in France and deciding which of the many competing resistance factions would receive support. She and her team organized airdrops from London of supplies that kept thousands of French Resistance fighters fed, clothed, and armed. She also coordinated the demolition of roads and bridges in advance of D-Day. She was quite a dame.

I especially liked the details included of the special difficulties of being a lone female operative leading and living among thousands of men in the 1940s. Bullying. Sleeping. Bathing. Dressing. Bathroom. Periods. I found it particularly gratifying when men made the mistake of underestimating her.

“The thing about lipstick, the reason it’s so powerful, is that it’s distracting. Men don’t see the flashes of anger in your eyes or your clenched fists when you wear it. They see a woman, not a warrior, and that gives me the advantage. I cannot throw a decent punch or carry a grown man across a battlefield, but I can wear red lipstick as though my life depended on it. And the truth is, these days, it often does.”

There are a few horrific and violent scenes. And plenty of swearing (in French!) and lots of drinking. It is war, after all. But the loyalty of her friends and comrades is palpable.

“Those are swastikas. Each new flag is touched to the blood banner in blessing. That first flag is said to be steeped in the blood of those who died during Hitlers’ first, failed coup over a decade ago. They say that fifteen of his supporters were killed that night and he soaked the flag in their blood as tribute to their loyalty.”

I wonder if it is possible to crack on my chest and pour the bottle of pure rubbing alcohol directly onto my heart. It’s not that I want to die, but rather that I never want to feel anything again. I don’t know how to get through the rest of this damn war while caring for so many people.’

The depictions of tenderness and desire between Nancy and her French husband, industrialist Henri Fiocca were particularly lovely and more than a little sexy.

“But it isn’t a physical tingling or an elevated heart rate. Nothing so melodramatic. It is internal. Emotional. Once my hand is wrapped firmly in his, I feel…calm. My entire frenetic self begins to idle. As though I’ve been given permission to rest. It is a foreign sensation.”

“And then Henri Fiocca kisses me right there on the river walk. It’s not that I haven’t been kissed before. I am twenty-four years old and I am not innocent. But still, I have never been kissed like this. It is thunder and rose petals at once. Static electricity and delicate intimacy…He goes slow at first and then he’s hungry. Ravenous, in fact…It lasts ten seconds, but it may as well be a lifetime for all that I’ve planned out. I am Mrs.—damned—Fiocca by the time he pulls away.”

As a decorated war hero, there have been many books written about Nancy Wake. Australian television produced a series about her. Wake wrote an autobiography The White Mouse before her death in 2011, that’s now been added to my TBR list. And recently a friend recommended this memoir, Abandoned and Forgotten by a local woman, the story of her childhood in WWII East Prussian. Then my book club selected The Kitchen Front for September’s book.

So, you see, I’ll be in WWII Europe for a while yet. But with these women for company, I know I’ll be fine.

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