Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Book Review: Sisters of Night and Fog

By Jami Denison

Historical author Erika Robuck has followed up her World War II saga of American-socialite-turned-Allied spy Virginia Hall, last year’s Invisible Woman, with a story about another American named Virginia who worked for the allies in World War II. Sisters of Night and Fog is actually about two women, American Virginia d’Albert Lake and Briton Violette Szabo, who worked separately to defeat the Nazis but came together at the notorious female concentration camp, Ravensbruck. It’s a meticulously researched, engrossing book that forces readers to ponder the questions of evil and endurance in the world.

Starting at a Ravensbruck reunion in 1995 and quickly moving back to 1940, Sisters of Night and Fog details how the women became involved in the resistance effort and the sacrifices they made to help the allies. A native of Florida, Virginia married a French man, Phillippe, who urged her to return to the U.S. rather than stay in occupied France. But she refused, and eventually the couple became active in the Comet Line, a group of resistance fighters who helped allied pilots shot down over Belgium and France to get into England. Violette, the daughter of a French woman and British man, lived in England but was fluent in both languages. After marrying a French soldier who died in Africa, she joined Britain’s Special Operations and trained as a field agent, learning to parachute out of airplanes to go behind enemy lines. Both women did all this while dealing with life under Nazi occupation and bombings. 

In her author’s note, Robuck says she was pursuing a project about Szabo, got stuck, and began writing about Lake instead. After a dream about Violette, she decided to combine the two projects. The effort does seem a bit forced, since the women don’t meet until they are arrested. Their separate storylines mean a lot of supporting characters, and sometimes I had trouble remembering who they all were.

Nearly 500 pages long, the book moves forward at a steady and sometimes slow pace, often alternating between the women’s personal lives and the details of their involvement with the war. Things get gradually worse; the characters become used to the restrictions. The danger is so constant, the reader almost becomes numb to it. 

In any other book, these observations would be criticisms. But Robuck has performed a neat trick of duplicating for the reader the experience of her characters. When I got tired of reading about hunger and cold, I remembered that these were real people experiencing a real event. When D-Day occurred halfway through the novel and the characters thought the allies would rescue them any day now, I reminded myself it took another year for the war to end. The pace was agonizingly slow, punctuated by scenes of great danger, because that’s how the war was endured. 

The bravery of these women, who had the choice to go home to America or stay home with a baby, is almost unbelievable. As a reader, I knew that eventually the war would end and the allies would be victorious. They had no such guarantees. They put their lives on the line, knowing that capture could mean unimaginable torture followed by death. I wonder if I would be capable of such bravery. And I wonder about the enormous cruelty on the other side. What does it take for a person not to see another person as human? To treat them worse than someone would treat an animal?

I wrote this review on a day when my governor had a man arrested at his press conference for asking a question. It’s a week when Canadian and British publications ran editorials warning their countrymates of a coming U.S. civil war. I applaud authors like Erika Robuck and others who have done so much to keep the memory of World War II alive. And I wonder whether those who know history are doomed to repeat it anyway. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Erika Robuck:

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