Column: Awakened by Historical Fiction

Photo courtesy of Audrey Patterson.

By Audrey Patterson | Contributor

Books have saved my life more than once. They help me breathe. They are my escape. They guide me through difficult times, and they can do the same for you.

Historical fiction is a genre that I rarely choose to read. However, when it was forced upon me by my high school’s book club, I never looked back. No matter how many historical fiction books I read, I find myself returning to “The Nightingale” again and again because of the lessons I’ve learned from it and will continue to remember.

“The Nightingale,” written by Kristin Hannah and published in 2015, tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, coming of age during World War II and their struggle to survive the German occupation of France. Although “The Nightingale” is fiction, it is rooted in truth. Hannah based Isabelle’s character on a Belgian woman, Andrée de Jongh, who risked her life helping downed Allied pilots escape Nazi-occupied France and Belgium on foot.

Unlike the fiction, dystopian or fantasy books that I read, “The Nightingale” has undeniable historical truth. I think that is what’s most appealing about it. Despite the horrors described, the people killed, the fact is one woman chose to be brave. She chose to help others, even when she didn’t have to, even with the looming consequences of death or concentration camps.

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are,” Vianne said in the book.

I’ve often thought about how I would act if war broke out across the United States. Would I be a hero, a coward, a fighter, or a bystander? I might never know, but this story gave me role models of ordinary women who put everything on the line to help others.

We have to wake up each day and determine how to face our hardships. We don’t always get to control what takes place in our lives. All we have power over is how we receive it.

“The Nightingale” taught me that your mindset matters. Whether you’re dealing with a difficult situation over a short period or a long one, your mindset makes a difference in the outcome. “The Nightingale” characters dealt with various problems in which they needed to maintain clear thinking, accept their new reality, and make difficult decisions that sometimes meant life or death.

I learned the importance of facing your problems and being resilient. Not dwelling on your problems but acting. In the book, the character Isabelle tells herself, “Someone told her she couldn’t do something, she did it. Every barrier she turned into a gate.” This quote has changed how I look at problem-solving. To solve many of our daily problems, all we need is to step back, reevaluate and look at the problem from a different view.

Being a historical fiction book about World War II, “The Nightingale” does depict violent scenes. Readers who criticize this book disagree with the abuse and rape scenes that are within the pages. I’ll admit these scenes can be hard to read, but I think they are crucial parts of the story. “The Nightingale” is not romanticizing their lives; no one would want to trade places.

This story takes place during a brutal war, and I think it’s important to see the truth in history and not sugarcoat it. Even the Bible depicts horrific stories of humanity failing. I naturally don’t like thinking about the cruelty and loss that occurred, but novels like “The Nightingale” force me to do so. They force me to consider what is worthy of sacrifice in life, what has real meaning and how I want to live.

At the beginning of the story, Vianne said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Isabelle. Paris is overrun. The Nazis control the city. What is an eighteen-year-old girl to do about all of that?”

This book showed me that an 18-year-old girl can accomplish a lot.