Flame in the Night by Heather Munn is a captivating drama about the resistance movement in occupied France during WWII. Teenage scouts conceal Jewish children from the Gestapo in remote farms, attics, treetops and caves. Meanwhile, all around them everyday life continues as usual: cultivating vegetables, going to school, shovelling snow, attending church.
An informer, working for the compromising Vichy government, takes up residence in the village. Injured German soldiers from the Eastern front arrive to recuperate. The pastor and his assistant encourage the faithful to practise nonviolent resistance. Together they establish a network of helpers, which enables many Jewish children from Poland or Germany, whose parents have been deported to concentration camps, to go into hiding or to take on new identities and mingle with the locals. However, some of the village lads join the underground armed Maquis. And so the agonising questions of conscience keep surfacing.
The prime player in this story are Julien Losier, the eighteen-year-old son of an earnest French Protestant family. His counterpart is Elisa Schulmann (renamed Elise Fournier), the sixteen-year-old daughter of strict German Jewish parents. You guessed: they fall for each other. But this is no traditional romance. It’s all about the heart-searching questions of faithfulness to one’s upbringing, responsibilities and convictions, of ethical dilemmas, and the tormenting yearning for God to reveal Himself amid all this suffering.
Various subplots spice up the narrative. Benjamin fails in his attempt to sneak across the border into Switzerland. Pastor Alexandre and Julien’s father are incarcerated, which provokes the nervous breakdown of his mother. How can two teenagers be expected to cope in such a situation?
This book is superbly written throughout. Munn captures not only the sinister events and accompanying inner struggles, but also vividly describes the harsh scenery and dramatic changes of season, as well as the practicalities of life in a siege situation. One particularly strong feature is the masterly and very realistic use of cropped remarks in tense dialogue exchanges, to hint at things the speaker doesn’t dare to express in words.
Although laced with suspense, this book is not for those seeking an action-packed, racy war thriller. Rather, it will appeal to serious readers, who are willing to come to grips with difficult moral issues and emotional qualms. Some readers might be put off by the repeated reflections on risking one’s life for others, and the legitimacy or otherwise of deceit and violence in a brutal war situation. I found the many characters with unfamiliar-sounding names a bit difficult at first, but the matter largely resolved itself as the book progressed.
This is a magnificent book with a challenging theme. You can buy the paperback here or the e-book here, or at Amazon or elsewhere. Heather Munn has written two earlier books together with her mother, Lydia Munn: How Huge the Night and Defy the Night. They set the scene for Flame in the Night and introduce some of the characters. However, it is not necessary to read them first, as each book is complete in itself.