Many books about the Nazi experience are set in concentration camps, and it takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep reading such accounts. This powerful, emotionally affecting and unforgettable story takes place in the Nazi period, but the focus is more on the impact of Nazism on non-Jews, and in particular, on the German children it was supposed to benefit. It is one of the best books I read all year.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of a widowed French locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her story is told in alternate chapters with that of Werner Pfennig, an orphaned boy from a coal mining town in Germany who has a knack for electronics. Further, their stories alternate in time between 1934 and 1944.
Marie-Laure’s father adores her and promises he will never leave her, but he knows the war is coming and he can’t predict what will happen. He pushes her to learn her way around the cities in which they live (after the German invasion, they flee Paris for the coastal city of Saint-Malo in Brittany) so that she can survive on her own if necessary. He builds her intricate wooden models of the houses and buildings around them so she can “read” these like Braille maps. On each birthday, he hides gifts for her inside little boxes with trap doors or false bottoms or sides to enhance her ability to sense by touch. He buys her a Braille edition of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a story that takes place in a world far away from the light, and it fascinates her.
Meanwhile, Werner’s ability with radios has won him a place at the national Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, a brutal place where young boys are shaped into Nazis serving the Reich. The training has two main objectives: military readiness, and the discipline and will to be cruel. It is an illuminating study of how children in oppressive societies are turned into killers. Werner sometimes secretly harbors doubts about the morality of the program but lacks the courage to act on these doubts (and with some justification – it does not end well for a boy who does try to exercise choice).
When Marie-Laure and her father are forced to leave Paris, her father is trusted with custody of a valuable gem from the museum to hide it from the Nazis, who were notoriously confiscating the culture and wealth of subjected peoples for Germany’s greater glory. Nazi Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is on a particular quest to find the magnificent diamond taken by Marie-Laure’s father. Legends hold that the gem will confer immortality on its owner.
All of these characters are connected by some form of light (both visible and invisible), but in addition, as the story builds, we get an increasing sense of the characters being pushed into darkness; crushed – literally and figuratively, spiritually and physically. Away from the light, there is moral decay, madness, and senseless violence. But this too binds the characters and increases their awareness of the alternative.
In the end, the pull of both the light and the darkness draws the characters into a complex web and a tension-filled climax that never rings a false or unrealistic note.
Discussion: Doerr is excellent at invoking the pain of the survivors – just the sheer missing of those they have lost. One of the characters wonders, in a mixture of pain and hope, if the souls of all those people so well loved and so sadly lost might be traveling invisible paths like the light waves:
“…is it so hard to believe that [those souls]… might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”
Indeed, whether metaphorical or real, because of war or just because of life, this is what it feels like for anyone who has ever suffered a loss. The loved ones are gone, but their words and influence remain, somewhere in the invisible light.
Is there a possibility of recovery? Can they, like snails, repair their own injured parts? Can they learn to reconcile themselves to what they have left? Some of them can, and for them, the light breaks through the clouds. For others, the light just shows the path for a bullet to hit its mark.
Evaluation: This is a magnificent story, with equal parts of suffocating tragedy and redeeming light and love. In this book, we hear the voices of the last great war, and what it did to those in its wake. The author enables us to imagine vividly what it was like to be alive at that time, subject to the same piercing fears and privations, facing the same obstacles and moral dilemmas, and confronted with both the depths of depravity and the heights of heroism. While the subject matter is dark, the story is told with poetic eloquence and poignant compassion. Highly recommended.
Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2014