When I wrote Under a War-torn Sky, I never anticipated a sequel. But readers kept asking what happened next to Henry, to Pierre, to Claudette, if Henry and Patsy married. What a wondrous thing, to have teens so concerned about characters who are so dear to me! So I "went back" to France to find out.
I'll answer right now a question I know you will ask: No, my father never returned after the war to seek out those who had helped him. This sequel, A Troubled Peace, is entirely fictional, directed by the unfinished business of Under a War-torn Sky and my research into post-war France. Despite the joy of being home, Henry is driven to look for Pierre because he is haunted by what might have happened after the boy's mother was arrested and his grandfather killed. Also, Patsy won't marry Henry—not yet anyway. He has another dual-odyssey to go on first, to save a child who once saved him, and to reclaim his own internal peace.
(I need to tell readers right now what a large impact your emails and our school visits together had on this sequel. When I learned that even boys seemed so worried about whether Patsy and Henry married, I started testing out a beginning to the sequel when I spoke to schools where students had already read the novel. Their gasp and what?! !! reaction told me I had the correct opening!)
While the plot is made up, the backdrop of this novel is factual. As always, my research told me what to write, where to take my characters, what challenges to throw at them. It was as if Pierre and the real life people I read about took my hand and led me. It was an amazing journey, full of revelations. Once again, I was awe-struck by the strength of the human spirit, by the good and the hope that can stubbornly exist amid inhuman cruelty and selfishness.
Frankly, I was completely unprepared for what I discovered about the level of chaos left in the wake of war ---the destruction, the hunger, the bitter vigilant-style retributions, the political upheaval that raged after liberation.
World War II lasted six years and embroiled 57 nations. It's thought that 55 million people perished, most of them civilians. Across Europe, 13 million children were orphaned. In France alone, 211,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen died, but so, too, did 600,000 civilians. These children, women, and men died in battle bombardments, landmines left by the Nazis, massacres in retaliation for Resistance activity, deportation, and, tragically, in Allied bombings designed to liberate them.
By V-E Day, May 8, 1945, most of France's bridges, railways, trains, and canals had been blown up—by the French Resistance to slow German reinforcements after D-Day or by the retreating Nazis to impede the Allies' pursuit of them. As the Allied armies chased the Nazis eastward from the Normandy beaches, homes, churches, hospitals, town halls were blasted to ruins in bloody village-by-village fighting. Five million French were left homeless. It became nearly impossible to transport what little food was being produced, what coal there was to generate electricity, what supplies the Allies dropped from planes by the tons. Starvation savaged France.
To prevent an outbreak of a civil war over daily necessities, food and electricity were rationed. Parisians were granted one hour of electricity per day to cook. French adults were allowed four eggs per month. Infants to three-year-olds were guaranteed only one dried banana for the year 1945. Little meat came into the cities and people would stand in line for days in anticipation of shipments. (Children could earn a penny a day as queue-holders.) The newly created United Nations, trying to cope with the needs of so many, found that the French were living off approximately 1,000 calories a day. (Americans typically consume 5,000 calories in a single Thanksgiving meal.) The French ate mostly bread and root vegetables such as rutabagas that survived combat tanks rolling over them. There were mass riots over other foods like butter and milk. To discourage stealing, penalties were harsh—one elderly man was jailed for eight days for picking a few of his neighbor's carrots.
As I read memoirs and looked at period photographs, I marveled at the French's ingenuity and ability to adapt. They reconfigured cars to run on charcoal. One beauty salon in Paris jerry-rigged hairdryers by having men in the basement madly pedaling a stationary bike attached to fans blowing air from wood-stoves. Women made a fashion of “lampshade” skirts they sewed from strips of whatever material they could find. They replanted the formal gardens of the legendary Louvre museum with leeks and onions, much as the Americans were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” in their backyards. When horses died (or, sadly, were eaten) large dogs and goats pulled carts instead.
I wept at the memoirs that described the return of what the French called "the absents"—the 1.5 million P.O.W.s and the thousands upon thousands deported as slave labor and to concentration camps. As the Allies stumbled onto the hellish death camps—Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Ravensbruch—they shipped the survivors home as quickly as they could. Broken, emaciated, and ill, thousands arrived in trains to Paris each day in the spring of 1945. If no one met them at the station, they were taken to a refugee center run in an elegant art deco hotel, the Lutetia. Why there? The hotel had been occupied by the Abwehr, the Nazi counter-intelligence agency and when they fled Paris and the oncoming Allies they left it well stocked with food, wine, medicine, and linens.
Upon entering the hotel, the "absents" and their clothes were sprayed with the pesticide DDT to kill the lice that carried typhus, and then carefully nursed back to health. At first they could only eat watered-down soup. Tragically, some concentration camp inmates died when the camps were liberated and generous American soldiers, shocked by the prisoners' appearance and hunger, gave them the rations or candy bars they carried in their pockets. The camp survivors' starved bodies were unable to handle real food. When they were strong enough, they spent hours looking at photos that people brought to the Lutetia of other "absents" who'd been deported to try to answer what happened to the people pictured.
It is there, in the frantic crowds of people outside the hotel trying to find their loved ones or news of them, that Henry must look for Pierre. I knew to send him there because of two lines in the afterword of Suite Francaise, a beautiful, unfinished novel by Irene Nimerovsky, a Jewish author who was deported and died in Auschwitz. We may enjoy her compassionate, poetic work because her young daughters carried the scribbled manuscript with them as their nanny hid them. In that afterword, Nimerovsky's daughter describes waiting at the Paris train station that received the "the absents." Day after day, she and her sister stood holding up a sign bearing their names, hoping their mother or father and would step off the train—alive—and see them. That image was heartbreaking to me.
So once again, Henry's story is not just his, it is also about the real life people who managed to survive and find their way out of the rubble and brutality of war.
Many of the people Henry meets truly lived, such as Madame Zlatin, who managed the Lutetia's center. She hid 44 Jewish children from the Nazis during the war and tirelessly worked afterward to help lost children find their parents. The Vercors man I call le patron is based on the real Resistance leader in that area, who arranged daring raids such as liberating 52 Senegalese soldiers from a Nazi garrison with only a handful of men. There are others—but you need to read the book first and then check my afterword for more details. I don't want to give away too much!
As for the character Henry, his personality—his resilience and innate kindness—remain reflective of my father's, just as in Under a War-torn Sky. In A Troubled Peace, Henry also suffers what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not many WWII veterans admitted to readjustment problems, nightmares, or flashbacks, (then simply called battle-fatigue or being flak-happy), but few combat veterans return completely untouched emotionally—even those who win special commendations for their courage under fire. When I was very young, my father cautioned me to never wake him while he slept by touching his arm. "Always call my name first," he said. When I asked why, he answered that there had been a time he had to be on alert, even when asleep, and he was afraid he might lash out with a self-preservation reflex and hurt me. That was more than fifteen years after the war ended.
I hope Henry's struggle to shake off his battle-readiness and regrets helps readers’ understanding of veterans returning from today's wars. I had not anticipated the thematic timeliness of A Troubled Peace. But certainly France’s struggle to feed its people, to rebuild its broken buildings and bridges, to replace hatred with cooperation and to redefine its politics and values echoes many of the challenges facing the people of Afghanistan and Iraq today.
As you read A Troubled Peace and look at some the links I have included here, I hope you are inspired and energized by the people who had the resolve and the raw courage to bring us out of the darkness of WWII. Remember what Anne Frank could express, so remarkably, as she hid from the Nazis in tiny, closed rooms: "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."
Resistance leader and writer Albert Camus, who lost many beloved friends to arrest and torture by the Gestapo, echoed her ennobling statement at the end of his WWII-inspired novel, The Plague: "After all, after the tragedy...there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate."
Let us have faith in mankind’s potential, then, and work for an untroubled peace among all nations. One Auschwitz survivor said, "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference." Buchenwald survivor and author of Night, Elie Wiesel adds, "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented...
"Peace is our gift to each other."