Thursday, July 14, 2016

An Emotional Experience with The Nightingale

"He thinks one's life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end."

We learn about war in our history classes. We read disturbing newspaper stories about violence in the world. We might say, "That's horrible. Incomprehensible." We may even have a pang in our gut for a little while. Then we get on with our life.

I recently listened to Steve Wozniak talk with enthusiasm about virtual reality. He explained how the technology will be a game changer. Not only will you be able to land yourself in another world, but the experience will become an emotional experience. It made me think about the book I just finished reading which took place in World War II.

With no disrespect to Mr. Wozniak, some books have the ability to transport us into another world and take us on an emotional journey. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was one such book. Not only could I not quit thinking about the story, but I became astutely conscious of the ease and convenience of my life. The other day I grabbed three napkins nonchalantly. Then I thought to myself, "How wasteful. Vianne would've done better."

Vianne and Isabelle are sisters from a small town outside of Paris. Germans have just occupied the country. With a deceased mother and an absent father who came home damaged from World War I, the women had their share of tragedy even before the second war broke out. Vianne is now raising her daughter by herself while her husband has gone off to be a soldier. Isabelle escapes her boarding school to live with an apathetic father in Paris.

Vianne and Isabelle's responses to the French Occupation are revealed through their personalities which are written in intimate and nuanced detail. Vianne is a cautious mother, motivated by the fear she feels for her family. Isabelle is the brash younger sister who takes on an orphan's perspective, having been palpably ignored by both her sister and her father. When Germans infiltrate their lives, Isabelle becomes determined to find meaning in her life by taking part of the resistance.

Through the sisters, we live through the horrors of the war. Scarcity, fear, torture, pain, rape, and death. Author Kristin Hannah doesn't only create a compelling story in which both of the sisters make brave contributions in the war, but she creates scenes with such intricate descriptions and details, it's impossible not to have a visceral reaction. People starved with hardly any rations. People burned everything to keep warm. People froze crossing mountains to find free country. People, children were ruthlessly shot for no reason. And of course, millions of people were massacred.

Despite all of the ugliness of the war, goodness and love seep through the actions of the good and courageous people. A love story develops. A family becomes reunited. Lives are saved.

The end of the book takes place in 1995, when one of the sisters is being recognized at a reunion ceremony. Her son asks his mother why he had never known about her contributions to the war. She responds, "Men tell stories...Women get on with it."

We need both of these things to deal with the horrors of the past. We need the stories. And we need to get on with it.

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