“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.” All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
When she is six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc goes blind. Her widowed father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum, constructs a miniature replica of the Paris neighborhood where they live so Marie-Laure can memorize nearby streets and landmarks.
Some years later, when she and Monsieur LeBlanc flee to the coastal city of Saint-Malo during the Nazi occupation, Marie-Laure’s father constructs a replica of that city, too, so Marie-Laure can make her way around independently. Eventually, Marie-Laure joins the resistance, along with her uncle, Etienne, who is a shell-shocked World War I veteran. She finds herself quite alone on the eve of the massive American bombing of Saint-Malo in August of 1944.
In the meantime, German orphan Werner Pfennig takes a keen interest in building and fixing radios. Eventually, he is recruited by the academy for Hitler Youth. During the war, Werner tracks the resistance by searching for secret radio broadcasts. Werner detects illegal broadcasts coming from Saint-Malo, and the very street where Marie-Laure lives.
All the Light We Cannot See was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. Anthony Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland but now lives in Idaho, is a writer I intend to follow. I’ve put his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, on my holiday wish list, and am enjoying his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. His prose is breathtaking, poetic. (I’m studying favorite sentences from the novel as a writing exercise.)
When I read World War II European-front fiction I try to imagine where my father would have been at the time. He arrived in France and Luxembourg a few months after the bombing of Saint-Milo and fought during the weeks leading to the Battle of the Bulge.
Here is a 9-minute video I found on YouTube of Americans bombing and entering Saint-Malo. There were about 850 buildings in the town, and after the bombing only 150 or so remained standing.
A couple of my favorite passages from All the Light We Cannot See:
“She places a ration coupon on the counter. ‘One ordinary loaf, please.’
‘And how is your uncle?’ The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.
‘My uncle is well, thank you.’
Madame Ruelle…reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. ‘You amazing child.’
…the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. ‘Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.’
‘The mermaids, Madame?’
‘They are coming dear. Within the week.'”
“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama…
Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”
“But God is only a white, cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”