I have yet to read The Nightingale but it's been on the New York Times best seller list since it was published in February. The author is the very prolific Kristin Hannah who has over 20 books to her name. I picture them on a shelf in her home office, title after title lined up neatly, one after the other: "The Things We Do for Love" "Between Sisters" "Firefly" "Home Front" "Night Road" "Home Again." Hannah is clearly not a person who sits around saying "I wish I could write a novel"or "maybe I'll write a novel one day." Instead she sits at her desk and produces so she can point them out, spine by spine, "And I wrote that, and I wrote that, and I wrote that."
I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but just between us, some of her covers, most of her covers actually, look pretty sappy. The Nightingale is definitely an exception. Obviously she writes and sells a ton of books. She's a favorite with book clubs so I know the stories have to deliver more than the covers seem to promise; simplistic and weepy stories regardless of whether they end happily or tragically. So what's the deal with these romance novel cover designs? Clue me in!
On the other hand, reading what Hannah herself has to say on the subject, is reassuring. And The Nightingale, the story of two sisters living in France during WWII, following their lives as one becomes a prisoner in her own home and the other fights for the resistance, sounds both important and riveting.
“Sometimes a story sneaks up on you, hits you hard, and dares you to look away. That was the case with The Nightingale. In truth, I did everything I could not to write this novel. But when research on World War II led me to the story of a nineteen-year-old Belgian woman who had created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France, I was hooked. I had read endless books on World War II, and still I didn’t know this story; I didn’t know that downed airmen had hiked over the frozen peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in shoes that didn’t fit, in clothes that weren’t warm enough, with both the Germans and the Spanish patrols searching for them. The entire journey out of France and over the mountains was fraught with risk. As the war progressed and the Nazis learned of the escapes, the consequences to anyone caught aiding the escapees became deadly.
The woman who led them was named Andrée De Jongh and her story — one of heroism and peril and unbridled courage — became the starting point for my novel. I simply couldn’t turn away. When I had read everything I could about Andrée, I dove into the stories of women who joined the Resistance in France. I found literally dozens of memoirs written by women who had become spies and couriers and helped to create the escape network.
These women were the action-star heroes of the time, but there were others, women with stories that were told in a quieter voice: women who hid Jewish children in their homes. These courageous women put themselves directly in harm’s way to save others. Too many of them paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. They were, like so many women in wartime, largely forgotten after the war’s end. There were no parades for them, very few medals, and almost no mention in the history books. It felt like an oversight to me, something that needed to be corrected. These women had risked their lives in a time when the smallest mistake could get one killed. They deserved to be understood and remembered.
Once the idea took root, I began as I always do: with research. It’s really the research — in any novel — that informs the story. First I find out what has happened, and then I begin to extrapolate what could happen, and then I create a world that makes sense to me, an imaginary world firmly planted in truth. In this story, of course, the research was a daunting task. There was simply so much to know and understand. I started with the historical background of the war in Europe and then began to narrow my focus. My best information always comes from memoirs — in this case, memoirs of women in the Resistance, downed airman who had escaped, and women who hid and rescued Jewish children.
Of course I took a few liberties — it’s fiction, after all — but I did it all with an eye toward telling a story that felt as true as possible. I really felt a heavy burden to tell these stories well and honestly. Too many of them have been forgotten.
More and more, as I read about these brave women, I found myself consumed with a single, overwhelming question, as relevant today as it was seventy years ago: When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life — and more important, my child’s life — to save a stranger?TriStar, the studio that optioned the title, hired Ann Peacock to write the adaptation. Peacock, who like Hannah, holds a law degree, penned the scripts for A Lesson Before Dying, The Chronicles of Narnia, Kit Kitteridge: An American Girl and Nights in Rodanthe. To be frank, that last one is not what I'd call a good omen. Disagree? Talk to me.
That question is at the very heart of The Nightingale.
A question that haunts me still.”