World War II is one of the most written about parts of human history. Acts of heroism, acts of madness, acts of sacrifice, acts of survival… it is all covered in every aspect of the written word, fiction and non-fiction. And yet Susan Ottaway has managed to find something, someone whose story has never really been told. And that is the basis for A Cool and Lonely Cocurage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France.
The sisters are Jacqueline and Eileen “Didi” Nearne, born to British parents and raised in France. When the Nazis invaded France, the sisters wanted to help the war effort however they could so they travelled to England, where they held citizenship. Jacqueline was the first to find true work for the war effort, joining the SOE and training as a agent who would be sent to France to work against German interests. Older than Didi, Jacqueline made deals to keep her sister out of France while she went to work as a courier and an organizer.
Didi wanted to go to France.
And she went, working as a wireless operator until she was eventually captured by the Gestapo and taken through a variety of work and concentration camps.
Ottaway tells the story of sisters, in its simplest form. The older sister wants to protect the younger sister. The younger sister looks up to the older sister. She tells the story of war, of an almost inexplicable desire to fight and to be a part of eventual victory. She tells the story of survival, of living through more than ever thought possible and yet never being the same again.
Ottaway’s book does contain a lot of facts, dates, and details. But the balance she gives with the story of humanity is perfect. Reading about the organizational structure of the SOE headquarters in London and a half dozen circuits scattered throughout France could be cumbersome but it is not. Not when the people come alive on the page and when their very lives are on the line.
This book is a must-read for any student of World War II history.
(I received a copy of A Cool and Lonely Courage through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)
Novels based on true events and real people can be hit or miss. There’s always a chance that too much artistic license will be taken to flesh out a story that doesn’t quite fill a novel and there’s always a chance that the true events and real people will be far more interesting than the novel can ever be.
Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” is neither of things. It bridges the gap between fiction and reality and it makes the reader realize that sometimes there is a compelling story in being absolutely ordinary.
Otto and Anna Quangel are the protagonists of Fallada’s story and they are based on Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampels were ordinary citizens of Berlin during World War II when they decided that they had to do something to protest the war. They wrote treasonous postcards and left them around the city. There weren’t many people who saw the postcards and the culture of fear in Germany at the time was such that most people were terrified to read them. But the Gestapo was afraid of the writers of these postcards. Fallada was given the Hampels’ Gestapo file after the war and he created the Quangels in their place.
The Quangels don’t bring about an end to the war and they don’t even shake the foundation of the Third Reich. There’s a telling scene early on in the book in which Anna asks Otto if his plan for the postcards isn’t a “bit small” and he replies that they will be executed if they are caught. To some, it might seem as though there’s no point in risking one’s life when it is something small that might not mean anything – and this is a recurring theme in the book – but to the Quangels it means everything.
Fallada writes them in a way that the reader wonders what she might do in the same situation, because the Quangels are the “every man” of every society and no society is immune from the necessity to make a stand. The question of whether one stand is more right than another is an important thread in the book. The answer isn’t easy, not for the Quangels and not even for the Nazis who are searching for them – one inspector even kills himself with the thought that he has become Otto Quangel’s only disciple.
The starkest scene in the novel is when Otto is sharing a cell with a symphony conductor and they discuss what impact the actions that led them to their cells might have on the larger world and whether or not it was worth it. The conductor tells Otto that if there were men willing to assassinate the Nazi hierarchy the moment it came into power, then they wouldn’t be there in the first place. That they will die alone is not a condemnation of the bravery that led them to stand up, even if no one noticed they were standing.
Fallada wrote the novel in twenty-four days after being released from a Nazi mental hospital. The appendices in the book make it clear he was definitely not anti-Nazi and that makes his fictional accounting of a small act of defiance against a regime he tolerated, more than he supported it, all the more telling about what the average German might have felt and thought. It’s easy for the reader to imagine Fallada, and herself, finding the cards under the looming shadow of the Gestapo and being terrified at the stupidity of whoever left them.
But still, you want to be brave enough to do something.