France, 1941. The French government, led by Marshal Pétain in Vichy, is collaborating with Hitler in exchange for the appearance of a token sovereignty.
Danielle is a twelve-year-old Jewish girl, who grew up in a secular, academic household in Paris, and is now living as a “hidden child” with a Catholic family in a small village in the unoccupied zone. Her father was killed in the early days of the war, and her mother has gone underground; her “aunt” Berthe and “uncle” Claude (her grandmother’s former maid and butler), agreed to take her in and pass her off as their niece, “Marie-Jeanne,” in exchange for extra illicit ration tickets.
This excerpt appears after Danielle/Marie-Jeanne has been living in the village for six months; the early months were quite traumatic, as she had to come to terms with her father’s death, what she feels is her mother’s abandonment of her, living with a family of complete strangers, and the need to “pass” as a Catholic girl—it has been made very clear to her how high the stakes are, that if she makes even the slightest mistake and is found out, the police will come and kill the entire family. By now, Danielle feels she has adjusted quite well to this new life and identity—but there are ongoing challenges, and ongoing threats … [End Page 98]
October 1941 La Perinne, France
Monsieur Monzie is delighted. He has been waiting months for a package to arrive from Vichy, supplies for the latest special school project. He gets so excitable about such things, clapping his hands, fussing with his wire spectacles, and working his eyebrows. He joins all the children in singing to Marshal Pétain every morning—
You have worked ceaselesslyFor the common salvation!For giving us your life,Your genius and your faith!Marshal, we are here!
—his hands clutching his heaving chest, his eyes moist. Because our dear Marshal loves you children, he quotes from the newsreels, he loves children who join him in the rebuilding of our proud nation! He loves children who work hard and sacrifice and obey! He practically jumps up and down when students write correct answers on the board: Yes, yes! he proclaims. Danielle and her friend Genevieve agree he is foppish and odd; they imitate him—Yes, yes? Yes, yes!—as a joke together, giggling, when they are alone.
For the first project of the new school year each student had to learn and report everything about the saint for which they were named. The younger students were to draw pictures of their saint performing whatever they became a saint for, but the older students were to write a story about their saint’s miraculous act, and why the saint was so holy he or she deserved to be a saint. Danielle remembered, briefly, before the sick feeling came to her stomach and the pain in her head, her first night here, the last night she was still Danielle. How long ago it seemed! Her mother and that strange woman, Berthe, hunched over a candle in the smoky, cabbage-smelling house, whispering about false identity papers while that strange man Claude paced and cracked his knuckles, all of them ignoring her and busy coming up with the first lie, the biggest, most important lie. The lie of a name. Berthe wanted to call her “Marie,” the most Christian name there is, she’d said, and the purest of all women, and also “Jeanne,” such a good holy girl to listen to saints’ voices and die to save France. So Danielle, no, Marie-Jeanne, with a choice between the Virgin Mary or Jeanne [End Page 99] d’Arc, chose Jeanne. It would be too easy to make a mistake with Mary, to get a detail wrong about Jesus or some crazy thing like the Immaculate Conception. She had Berthe’s old copy of A Children’s Catechism, which was just endless lists of questions and answers she was supposed to memorize so she’d know everything about being a good Catholic and Christian girl, Who is God? and What...