The Night War by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Set in Paris, 1942, The Night War by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of twelve-year-old Miriam Erika Schrieber (Miri). In the face of danger, Miri’s parents have always told her “Verne heldishe (be brave)” and “We don’t choose how we feel, but we choose how we act. Choose courage” (16).  

These words become Miri’s mantra when she is forced to flee the Pletzl, a Jewish neighborhood in Paris during a roundup of Jewish people. In a moment, with two-year-old Nora Rosenbaum in her arms, thrust there by a mother wanting to save her child from the Nazis, Miriam becomes Marie when a Catholic nun invents a story for her to escape. Now, Miriam wonders how she can choose courage when she doesn’t know in which direction to run.

Bradley’s book takes readers on a journey of secrets and survival. After Nora and Miriam are separated, Miri must find a way to reconnect and to fulfill Sara Rosenbaum’s request: “You will tell Nora who she is . . . [although] you may have to pretend to be someone else for a while” (26).

Miriam finds herself at a Catholic convent school in a village called Chenonceaux, named after the Castle Chenonceau. As Marie, Miri must hide her Jewish roots, her prayers, and her goal to get to Zurich, Switzerland, with Nora. Here, she meets Beatrice and Jacqueline who tell her stories of the castle’s previous owners: Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers.

From the convent, two of the nuns, Sister Dominique and Sister Annunciata provide assistance to a passeur network that ferries people to safety using the castle as a bridge to Vichy, an independent city in France during the World War II era. When Sister Dominque falls and breaks her leg, Sister Annunciata needs an accomplice to do the nighttime ferrying—something she is unable to do because of a medical condition that causes her body to emit an odor which resembles that of rotting fish. Trimethylaminuria, better known as fish odor syndrome, is a metabolic disorder which affects the urine, sweat, and expired air of the afflicted.

In her risky role as a passeur, Marie learns a great deal about history and the role that money and power play as history repeats itself. “The more history you learned, the more you saw the same things happening, over and over, wars and hatred and fighting, people moving from one place to another in search of a safe place to live” (203). Just as Catherine de Medici persecuted the Huguenots, Hitler persecutes the Jews, attempting to erase them by taking their names, their language, their prayers, their songs, and many of their other cultural practices.

Despite her heroic role, Miriam often questions whether she is brave enough. If she doesn’t perform successfully as a passeur, if she can’t get Nora back and into Switzerland, she fears she will be a failure.

Along with Miriam, readers learn several important lessons: “Sometimes there are no good choices” (229), and “You aren’t to blame for the actions of evil people” (235).

Another key point emerges when Beatrice states: “What you believe or what religion you follow doesn’t determine what kind of person you are” (241). Perhaps the biggest take-away from Bradley’s historical novel is to remember that those who write the history books are often the victors in some act of persecution. We have to be cautious when judging people so as not to demonize them based on religious beliefs, skin color, language, sexuality, or anything else that sets them apart as a group. With more information, we are bound to choose differently.

  • Posted by Donna

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