As ever, the truth, inasmuch as it can be established 70 years after the event, is considerably more interesting. The myth has much diminished reality. It has also given rise to an unceasing flow of feuds, jealousies, backbiting, calumnies, hearsay, claims and counterclaims and prejudice, pitting Catholics against Protestants, armed resisters against pacifists, civilians against Maquisards, believers against agnostics, those who seek glory against those who wish to remain silent. … What actually took place on the plateau of the Vivarais-Lignon during the grey and terrifying years of German occupation and Vichy rule is indeed about courage, faith and morality. But it is also about the fallibility of memory.
(from Village of Secrets)
Quick summary: In Village of Secrets, Caroline Moorehead provides a detailed account of how a small village in the mountains of eastern France saved thousands of people — including Jews and OSS and SOE agents — during World War II. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is just one village on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon who hid these people right under the noses of the Germans and the French collaborators. Moorehead describes the history of the plateau, including the religious battles that paved the way for resistance over the centuries, and how its geography helped in their efforts. Most importantly, Moorehead compares the myth of Le Chambon to the truth of what actually happened, based on interviews with the rescuers, those who were rescued, and relatives of both, as well as unpublished letters, journals, and other sources.
Why I wanted to read it: I’m always interested in stories of courage and resistance during World War II, and I was especially intrigued by this book’s focus on mythmaking and the fallibility of memory.
What I liked: Moorehead goes into a lot of detail about the villagers, from the pastors to the farmers to those operating children’s homes, and individual stories of those in need of sanctuary. She spends a lot of time building the story, with background information about the Vichy regime, the French internment camps, and the religious history of the region, which was important in what played out on the plateau. Moorehead also provides a lot of information about what happened in the years after the war, from following up with the principal actors to how the events were portrayed in the media, and discusses the gray areas where the truth likely can be found.
What I disliked: Sometimes, there was almost too much information. There were small sections here and there that were a bit dry, but it was easy to read beyond them to get back to the meat of the story. Even when I was a little bored with the information (like the details going back to the 1600s), I could see why those details were important. Because there were so many people involved in the events, it was hard to keep track of everyone and the time line, but I just tried to go with the flow, and in the end, it didn’t prevent me from following or being fascinated with the story. Also, there were French phrases used here and there, and they weren’t always translated, which bothered me because I don’t speak or read French, but again, that’s a minor quibble.
Final thoughts: Village of Secrets is a fascinating story about a French village whose inhabitants were willing to risk everything to save thousands of people, especially children. Moorehead delves deep into the region’s history before, during, and after the war to provide a balanced view of events. The book brings to light the true number of villages and rescuers involved and how many people were saved, underscores how people exalted for their goodness were really less so, and how the reality was distorted and became a legend over time.
Disclosure: I received Village of Secrets from Harper for review.
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