The literature devoted to World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, is extensive, and for American readers it comes largely from an American perspective. This even though the war was not fought on our turf.
In contrast, Richmond author Carolyn Kay Brancato’s new novel “The Night Belongs to the Maquis,” is set in France, a country that experienced the full horrors of a brutal Nazi occupation. While it is a tale of heroism, it is not the generally sunny heroism of Hollywood films about the war. The heroism is accompanied by tragedy and loss, the occasional victories tempered by the sobering reality of what war and occupation does to a land and its people.
The novel is set predominantly in the village of Foix, which in fact exists in the Pyrenees of Southern France, not far from the border of Spain. It’s the fall of 1939 and while the war seems far off and many in the rural village are in denial of its reality, the storm clouds are clearly gathering.
At the core of the story is 20-year-old Sylvie, a farmer with an independent streak and a passion for Jean, a neighboring farmer. That passion is barely consummated when he is called off to defend France in the Ardennes. As the Germans advance with unthinkable speed, Jean goes missing and is reported dead.
Sylvie’s story parallels and entwines with that of Helene, a pragmatic nurse in her late 20s whose husband has vanished into the maw of the war. Sylvie and Helene are our eyes and ears as Foix is buried under a crush of refugees fleeing southward, many from as far away as Poland, many of them lost children, and of course, many of them Jewish. They also bear witness to the Nazi occupation of Foix in all its arrogance and casual brutality.
The Maquis of the title are the French Resistance, and “The Night Belongs to the Maquis” is their battle cry. Foix’s proximity to Spain makes it a natural escape route for downed Allied airmen and others gathered by the Maquis, and given what they have witnessed, Sylvie and Helene are eager to join their cause, although at great risk. The cause of the Maquis is righteous, but these are hard men, and what they ask of Helene when the Nazi officer heading the occupation takes up quarters in Helene’s home is as unthinkable as it is cruelly logical.
Brancato doesn’t spare readers the brutality of this corner of the war over the novel’s five-year period, whether it is the occupation of Foix, or an excursion to the war zone, where we enter prison camps and see crematoriums at work. A strong supporting cast of characters reveal how these traumatic experiences can bring out unexpected strengths and weaknesses. The spoiled Isobel finds strength after her parents are taken away by the Nazis and she joins the Resistance, while Sylvie’s younger brother Etienne dangerously succumbs to rage.
In an author’s note, Brancato reveals that she has visited Foix, studied the landscape, and met with three members of the Resistance. “The Night Belongs to the Maquis” is a work of fiction but Brancato’s research lends it considerable verisimilitude. The result is a powerful, heartbreaking novel that does justice to those who suffered under the boot of Nazi Germany and found the strength to fight their way out from underneath it.