Escape From Paris. Carolyn Hart. Seventh Street Books, Amherst, NY. ISBN: 978-1-61614-793-8, trade paper, 286 pages, $13.95. E-book, 978-1-61614-794-5. With an Introduction by the author.
Carolyn Hart has published fifty books: traditional novels in four series, stand-alone thrillers and suspense novels, and young adult novels. I was privileged to receive a review copy of a re-issue of Escape From Paris, set in 1940, near the beginning of World War II in Europe. In her introduction Hart comments that, to get the original novel published in 1982, she had to cut 40,000 words. The re-issue is the original uncut manuscript. She further notes: “I hope readers will share the struggles of brave men and women who defied the Gestapo during the bitter winter of 1940. They knew fear, found love, grieved loss. Their lives and deaths remind us that freedom survives only when the free are brave.” This is a timely message at this point in time, when we are beset with economic, political, and weather crises.
I’ve read many novels about World War II and the Nazis, but Escape From Paris cuts to the heart of the emotional challenge of such times, describing the mind-numbing, paralyzing fear, and those who engendered it by their brutal and absolute indifference to the sufferings of other human beings. The mindset of the Nazis saw other people with contempt and needed to have absolute control.
Linda Lassiter and her sister, Eleanor Masson, are Americans living in Paris in 1940. France, after its defeat by the German army, signed an armistice. Part of France was still controlled by the Vichy, pro-Nazi government, but Paris and Northern France were directly controlled by the German military and Gestapo (Geheine Stats Polizei). Jews were being rounded up and shipped to Germany in cattle cars. The abstract nature of such a statement is turned inside out here by vivid scenes: gentle, elderly Jewish women, cold, hungry, scared, one with an incipient heart attack, then falling in the mud and breaking her hip, and having no hope of a doctor in filthy conditions unfit even for animals. Such vignettes, with their small details, reveal the full horror of what the Nazi cruelty was like.
Eleanor, married to a Frenchman missing in action, is working with the Red Cross to take food to wounded soldiers in Paris hospitals. When Linda takes her place, a wounded British soldier asks her to help him escape by letting him ride in the trunk of her car. She is terrified, yet manages to fool the guard and get him back to Eleanor’s apartment. When the Gestapo arrive, Eleanor’s thirteen-year-old son Robert hides the soldier in a secret compartment in the basement, and the two women bluff their way through the Gestapo search of both apartment and car.
This successful rescue leads to their further efforts as part of the forming French Underground. When a British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot comes down in Northern France, he is helped to Paris by the new Underground, and the sisters take him in, get him a doctor for his wounded leg, which now has gangrene. With the new drug sulfanilamide that the doctor tries and the sisters’ nursing help, he pulls through, and during his slow recovery Jonathan and Linda fall in love.
This is a suspense novel, and the fear in the reader that something bad will happen to Linda, Eleanor, Robert, and Jonathan, as well as to the escape route they work with, runs parallel to the terror these characters live with every day as they help people leave Paris via the Pyrenees into Spain and hence to ships that will take them away from increasingly Nazi-controlled Europe.
To me the greatest gift of this novel is a thoughtful analysis of how one can learn to cope with fear in such overwhelmingly difficult conditions. We know that what separates cowards from heroes and heroines is something deeper in us even than that fear which so easily undoes our conscious good intentions. What does cause us to calm ourselves, act normal when we feel terrified? Some resource I can only call spiritual. Something that helps us remember that other people depend on us and we must not fail them. Something that sees beyond the present moment and yet saves us in it from despair when we know we have no safety net. We must risk everything and have no guarantee we will win or even survive. We could call it love.
This is an apt time in human history to remember and re-live how people coped and risked their lives some seventy years ago. In 1940 those alive then had no idea how bad World War II would be before it ended, nor have we any certain knowledge of our future. We’d best learn to be brave if we want to stay free.
Look for another World War II reissued novel this summer: Broken Hearts, which chronicles the courageous efforts of Americans trapped in the Philippines after the Japanese invasion.
Carolyn Hart’s fiftieth novel, Dead, White, and Blue, was published in May 2013. Her books have won Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She has twice appeared at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. In May this year the Malice Domestic Convention honored her with the Amelia Award for her contributions to the mystery community. She is thrilled that some of her long-ago books are having a new life. She lives in Oklahoma City with her husband, Phil.