Friday, October 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead


From the author of the runaway bestseller A Train in Wintercomes the extraordinary story of a French village that helped save thousands, including many Jewish children, who were pursued by the Gestapo during World War II.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a small village of scattered houses high in the mountains of the Ardèche. Surrounded by pastures and thick forests of oak and pine, the plateau Vivarais lies in one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Eastern France, cut off for long stretches of the winter by snow.

During the Second World War, the inhabitants of the area saved thousands wanted by the Gestapo: resisters, freemasons, communists, downed Allied airmen and above all Jews. Many of these were children and babies, whose parents had been deported to the death camps in Poland. After the war, Le Chambon became the only village to be listed in its entirety in Yad Vashem's Dictionary of the Just

Just why and how Le Chambon and its outlying parishes came to save so many people has never been fully told. Acclaimed biographer and historian Caroline Moorehead brings to life a story of outstanding courage and determination, and of what could be done when even a small group of people came together to oppose German rule. It is an extraordinary tale of silence and complicity. In a country infamous throughout the four years of occupation for the number of denunciations to the Gestapo of Jews, resisters and escaping prisoners of war, not one single inhabitant of Le Chambon ever broke silence. The story of Le Chambon is one of a village, bound together by a code of honour, born of centuries of religious oppression. And, though it took a conspiracy of silence by the entire population, it happened because of a small number of heroic individuals, many of them women, for whom saving those hunted by the Nazis became more important than their own lives.



The Village of Secrets is not a book that you can sit down and read in an afternoon.  It is a recounting of courage and hope in the face of danger and evil in one of the darkest periods of history

I am amazed at the amount of research that Ms. Moorehead had to do for this book.  Of course, the underlying story is interesting, but when it first breaks into widespread attention, fond memories have a tendency to color the truthfulness of reports.  I appreciate that Ms. Moorehead acknowledges this fact, and seeks to give us a fuller picture.

Certainly, an amazing enterprise was undertaken in Le Chambon during the years in question.  And I would not discount the individuals', or the village's contributions towards saving people fleeing Nazi terror.  But there were other villages in the area doing the same things, and Ms. Moorehead gives them props for their contributions to the resistance.

Anyone interested in this era in general, and in the persecution of the Jews in particular, needs (!) to read The Village of Secrets.  Ms. Moorehead's book would do quite well as assigned reading in college courses in history.

As a mother and a human being, the scenes depicting families torn apart, literally and figuratively, the descriptions of emaciated detainees, and children arriving at the plateau with barely the clothes on their backs were heart-rending.  My children have gotten many extra hugs while I was reading this book.

The Village of Secrets is at once a recounting of history and a call to action.  Get it.  Read it.  Do it.



From Wikipedia:

Caroline Moorehead, OBE (born 28 October 1944) is a human rights journalist and biographer.

Born in London, England, Moorehead received a BA from the University of London in 1965.

Moorehead has written six biographies, of Bertrand Russell, Heinrich Schliemann, Freya Stark, Iris Origo, Martha Gellhorn, and most recently, the life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin (the daughter in law of Jean-Frédéric de la Tour du Pin), who experienced the French Revolution and left a rich collection of letters as well as a memoir that cover the decades from the fall of the Ancien Regime up to the rise of Napoleon III.

Moorehead has also written a number of non-fiction pieces centered on human rights including a history of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dunant's Dream, based on previously unseen archives in Geneva, Troublesome People, a book on pacifists, and a work on terrorism, Hostages to Fortune. Her most recent work in this category is on refugees in the modern world named Human Cargo, published in 2004. Moorehead has also published A Train in Winter, a book which focuses on 230 French women of the Resistance who were sent to Auschwitz, and of whom only forty-nine survived.

She has written many book reviews for assorted papers and reviews, including the TLS, Literary Review, Telegraph, Independent, Spectator, and New York Review of Books. She specialized in human rights as a journalist, contributing a column first to the Times and then the Independent, and co-producing and writing a series of programs on human rights for BBC television.

She is a trustee and director of Index on Censorship and a governor of the British Institute of Human Rights. She has served on the committees of the Royal Society of Literature, of which she is a Fellow; the Society of Authors; English PEN; and the London Library. She also helped start a legal advice centre for asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in Cairo, where she helps run a number of educational projects.

She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993. She was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to literature.

(Disclosure:  I received a copy of "The Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France" from the author and publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.)


  1. Excellent review...thanks.

    This book is up next for me.

    Silver's Reviews

    1. Glad to hear that, Elizabeth! I hope that, if called upon to do so, I can display the same care and bravery as did those French heroes.

  2. I'm sure I'll be hugging my son a lot while I read this book as well.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

    1. Wow...thanks so much, Heather! I have enjoyed every book I've reviewed through TLC Book Tours! :O)

  3. Stories like this really sit with you and help cement actual history. I'm so glad you loved it! Thanks for being on the tour!

    1. Seriously, Trish, if all history books were like this, there'd be a lot more history majors! :O)

  4. That sounds like a well-researched book!

  5. Wonderful review, I love how well researched this sounds. I am not Jewish, but am drawn to these types of stories, so this one goes on my list.