Review: A Train in Winter

I received this book for free from YA Books Central in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: A Train in WinterA Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead
Published by Harper on November 8, 2011
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: YA Books Central

They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a midwife, a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of fifteen who scrawled "V" for victory on the walls of her lycée; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities from across France, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers.

Eventually, the Gestapo hunted down 230 of these women and imprisoned them in a fort outside Paris. Separated from home and loved ones, these disparate individuals turned to one another, their common experience conquering divisions of age, education, profession, and class, as they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie.

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France.

A Train in Winter draws on interviews with these women and their families; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations to uncover a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival—and of the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship.

First Sentence: “On 5 January 1942, a French police inspector named Rondeaux, stationed in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, caught sight of a man he believed to be a wanted member of the French Resistance.”

Obviously, I don’t read too much nonfiction these days, still not recovered from the glut of required readings for my history major and also unable to resist the page-turning allure of fiction. Still, there are a few subjects that can tempt me into some scholarly reading, one of which is World War II. For whatever reason, I have always been drawn to everything about both WWI and WWII. As such, when I had the opportunity to review this, I jumped at it.

Very few history books read as smoothly as fiction, or as quickly. Moorehead’s reads like history, and not like a story, but her prose is still beautiful and much less dry than most of the history texts I’ve encountered. Her phrasing also reads as delightfully un-American, very suited to the French women she’s describing. I intended to just sit down and read this the way I do my fiction books, but ended up reading it in fits and starts, because it just went down better in small gulps, giving me time to mull things over, rather than frustrate myself by trying to read speedily.

Although the focus of this on the surface is a train, the train that took 230 female members of the resistance in France to Auschwitz, about half of the book focuses on how they got caught. Moorehead met with many of the still-living survivors as part of her research, and she obviously knew more about these women and the ones they were close to then some of the others. She doesn’t tell the stories of all 230, of course, but she gives a nice picture of life in Occupied France, and the various roles women played in the resistance. This was an area I knew little of, so I was thrilled to expand my knowledge.

Sent to the Auschwitz, these women endure all the hardships there, most of which are probably quite familiar, as the horror of the Holocaust is already well-known. Moorehead’s central thesis is that the reason so many of them (49/230) managed to survive was because of the kinship between these women. The friendships they developed and the way they supported one another in the camp greatly heightened their odds of survival.

These French women did their best to keep their minds active, reciting snippets of remembered poems and holding classes. They shared their food voluntarily, giving the largest portions to those most in need. At the freezing roll calls, they propped up those who could not stand. They secreted women who would otherwise be taken to the gas chambers away. They made each other Christmas presents from odds and ends they managed to steal. In short, the camps were still hell, but they were just slightly better with friends, serving as evidence that not all humankind is so evil and incapable of feeling.

One of my favorite things about A Train in Winter, I must admit at the risk of sounding childish, were the pictures. Okay, okay, hear me out. Many history texts include photos of the important figures, but they’re often sectioned off into the middle so the photos can be glossy, which is nice, except that, by the time you get to that section you don’t remember who most of them are. Moorehead located many pictures of the women, including ones taken in some of the camps. Seeing the change in the women once incarcerated is astonishing. Even more horrifying is the picture of some of the Auschwitz guards, presumably on some holiday, smiling and looking like any young, healthy folks out for a good time in the 40s, not like abusive killers.

Not what I expected Auschitz guards to look like. SOURCE.

Moorehead touches on so much, and I find reviewing history books a bit difficult. I thought her book quite well done, and would recommend it to those interested in studying the Holocaust or the French Resistance, whether for fun or for school.

8 responses to “Review: A Train in Winter”

  1. Ummm wow. That photo is…nauseating, really. I’ve often thought about reading this one but I have read many WWII books already, and it is such a tough subject for me to read about. I might at some point, because it does sound really moving, but I don’t know if I should. I get really emotional and depressed and I know that is the point but I hate feeling that way. Still, wonderful review.

    • Christina says:

      Sounds like your reaction to that photo was as visceral as mine was. It shocked me utterly. My mental images of the guards were nothing like that. Sometimes I forget to remember that terrible people look just like everyone else.

      As for whether you should read it, there is a lot of death. I mean, it’s the death camps, so…

  2. Oh wow… that’s not how I envisioned them looking either. That photo gives me chills. This sounds like a really good read, I haven’t read much nonfiction and tend to run from it but seeing how I love painfully real stories that feel like they hurt me physically I could really see myself enjoying (as much as one can) something like this. I may have to grab this one. I like that the pictures are sparsed throughout rather then thrown in a chunk in the middle. Great review!

    • Christina says:

      Yes, it’s such a contrast with everything else and all of your expectations. Every time I look at that picture, I just can’t believe that it truly is of the guards.

      I wish they would always do that with pictures!

  3. fakesteph says:

    Wow, the description alone intimidates me. I love history, but I prefer lectures to books… I don’t read much non-fiction, but this sounds really intense and I’m glad you liked it!

    • Christina says:

      Nonfiction is super intimidating, I don’t blame you. Haha. If it hadn’t been for a tour, I probably would have been too intimidated to actually read it, even though it’s awesome.

  4. trish says:

    From a history buff I think you’ve given the author quite high praise! 🙂

    Also, I agree that if all the pictures are lumped in the middle, you can guarantee the impact will be lost on me by the time I get there. I can only imagine what it must have been like to look at these pictures as you read through the book!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

    • Christina says:

      Seriously, I know it’s a small point, but the way pictures are handled in most nonfiction makes me batty. Color photos are not worth the loss of integration! They’re just not. I have to give the book props for doing it the way I approve of!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge