A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead
Author: Caroline Moorehead
Genre: Non-Fiction (WWII / Vichy France / Nazis / Biography / French Resistance / Women Revolutionaries)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (11/8/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of 230 women who, during WWII, were rounded up for participating in the French Resistance and imprisoned before being shipped in a cattle train to Auschwitz in 1943.
Reading Challenges: British Books
Do I like the cover?: I do -- I always love these kind of dramatic black-and-white photographs -- but I don't know if it fits the book exactly. The British/Canadian cover comes closer to conveying the friendship aspect of this book, although I think it's too cheery.
First line: On 5 January 1942, a French police inspector named Rondeaux, stationed in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, caught sight of a man he believed to be a wanted member of the French Resistance.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy for the WWII scholar in your life -- it's good!
Why did I get this book?: The lives of women during wartime is an interest of mine, and I'm especially fascinated by those involved with the Resistance during WWII. The book's emphasis on the friendships of these woman was an additional draw.
Review: I don't read a ton of nonfiction related to WWII because I'm a softie and a wimp. (And mildly obsessive when it comes to traumatic events; I'm a chronic 24/7 CNN-er during disasters.) All this is to say it has to be a certain kind of nonfiction to lure me from my slightly safer world of fiction.
Moorehead's book intrigued me from the first for two reasons: one, I loved her bio of the marvelous Martha Gellhorn; and two, I love books that emphasize female friendships. That this book was set among WWII French resistors just sealed the deal (one of my favorite films is based on Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Grey).
This isn't an easy book to get into: Moorehead has a brisk, dry style and the first three or four chapters are a barrage of people, places, dates, and events. It is easy to feel overwhelmed but these chapters rather quickly sketch out the feel of France under German occupation, the changes the Germans wrought, and context-ing the roots of the various Resistance movements. (For example, there are numerous Parisian neighborhoods with communist families; Moorehead later argues that the women who were active in the Communist Party fared better than some of the non-political prisoners due to the training and upbringing.)
The book went from merely interesting to gripping when the narrative moved from establishing context and setting to recounting the torturous way these resistors were treated upon being captured. Moorehead interviewed a few of the survivors still living, as well as their families, and used a wealth of other materials to make those years of imprisonment real. As the subtitle suggests, she does focus on the friendships between these women, who all agree it was part of the reason they survived as long as they did.
There are a ton of photographs included in the book which is marvelous (and disturbing and heartbreaking) and makes the stories of these women all the more real. Upon finishing, I teared up: Moorehead made these women real for me and I felt real sorrow for them. Even those who survived faced ongoing pain and heartache. Despite that, I don't regret reading this, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in women's lives during wartime. This is a slender book -- about 300 pages -- and it's gripping. I know I just got done emphasizing how sad it is but because of that, it's a compelling read.
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26. For another entry, check out my interview with Ms. Moorehead.