WWII! Of course we studied it in high school. Everybody has read The Diary of Ann Frank and the current generation has read The Book Thief. When I was twenty one I read the entire Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and over the years I have watched various movies from Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape to The Guns of Navarrone. I even had the privilege of hearing the 80 year old Elie Wiesel at the Chautauqua Institute speak about his experiences in German concentration camps during the war. I reread my purchased autographed copy of Night between his two talks (so I could save a good seat).
I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where some of my friend’s parents had visible tattooed numbers on their arms as evidence of their war experiences. My father was a mine sweeper in the Pacific and survived two sinking ships, pulling one to shore and earning a medal for saving the Captain’s life. (My dad died less than twenty years later from a weak heart – the after effects of malaria and chain smoking). So even though, in a way, I grew up surrounded by the war, in reality, my knowledge is limited. When I began reading The Cost of Courage by former New York Times reporter Charles Kaiser, it was like reading a science fiction novel full of fantasy. Although I knew about the French Resistance, I didn’t know the particulars as retold by the author. Here is the down and dirty side of the French occupation by the Germans, not a story coached in politically correct descriptions, but an honest accounting of what happened from the eyes of the people involved. Just as my father rarely spoke of the war (and never to me), these folks were tight lipped as well. The horrors they experienced remained a taboo subject. Luckily Kaiser was able to convince them to share their memories as members of the Maquis, a tale which will all-to-soon be lost resulting in a world ignorant of the nitty gritty details of that era – a time which needs to be chronicled if only to allow us to understand how our past is effecting the future.
Nobody else could have written this book. Charles’ Uncle Henry Kaiser was an American Lieutenant who was invited to stay at the Boulloche home in Paris in 1944 after the Liberation of Paris and the return of Charles de Gaulle. Over the year he remained, Henry head the stories of Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre and their experiences as a part of the French Resistance, which he later conveyed with a dramatic flair to his young nephew. Charles Kaiser first visited the Boulloche family in 1962 when he was eleven and over the years was able to frequent their gatherings. He considered the Boulloches his “French cousins” and became an “adopted” member of their extended family. Charles noticed that the past adventures relayed by his uncle were never mentioned. It is not surprising that after the senseless death of their parents (Jacques and Helene, and their older brother Robert) and the end of the war, the surviving three siblings married and started life anew, leaving the horrors of the war behind.
Finally, nearing the end of the century, Charles was able to convince Christiane, the only surviving sibling, that if her tale was not told the history would be lost to future generations. It would simply disappear if she failed to record it. For her it was a sense of obligation, so, at the age of 71, she began the emotionally difficult task of transcribing her experiences in a forty five page manuscript for her children and grand kids to read. Charles used this memoir, completed in 1999, as a starting point. He spent two and a half years in France researching and interviewing key players in the drama. This is a book which was fifty years in the making, beginning with the “stories” as retold by his uncle on up through to 2015 when this tome was finally published.
Charles, a journalist, relates the specifics of the European War from the rise of Hitler and the reactions of England and France to the German invasion of France to the Battle of Normandy where the allies began defeating the Germans to the final retaking of Paris continuing up until the end of the war. Within this historical background is the story of the French Resistance and the role the Bollouche siblings played in bringing down the Nazis. This book takes a straightforward unapologetic view of the reactions of the French citizens, especially the Parisians, to the German occupation. If this topic intrigues you there is also the 1969 documentary – The Sorrow and the Pity – which explores European life during this era. Despite the revealed depictions fraught with tragedy (all man made), there are also moments of success and ultimate victory. Kaiser rounds out this book with details about the postwar lives of the Boulloches and includes a list of characters, acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index along with an afterward and preface. The included photographs were a nice touch.
The author writes the story as if we are there and life is unfolding as we read. This telling in the present tense might be jarring for folks who would rather read about the past and not feel as if they were reliving events as they happened. It is, however, an effective tool to immerse the reader into the story to get a touch of the gut wrenching horror felt by the participants. In any case, while fascinating and well written, this is not an easy book to get through simply because there is just too much to take in. Just as when I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I concede that even if I reread it a second time, I still would not be able to retain all the information. Yet, I perceive its essence and that is good enough for me. God bless Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre (and their cohorts) for their fearless work on behalf of the French nation as well as the rest of the world. Thank you! Four stars.
I would like to thank Netgalley and Other Press for this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.