For years, I’ve thought that France rolled over when the Nazis invaded during WWII. Books like Sarah’s Key left the impression that most French citizens did little to protest against the repression, violence, and occupation that the Germans left in their wake. A Train in Winter tells a different story: that of the resisters, ordinary citizens who in their own, often seemingly small ways, fought back against the terror of those days. In particular, Caroline Moorhead focuses on the women of the French resistance; these were defiant, proud women who not only supported their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, and lovers in the fight to reclaim Occupied France, but who often risked their own lives and gave up their children in the process.
Moorehead’s tale of these women is well-researched and documented, but I had many of the same problems that others did with this book. In truth, it’s probably closer to a 3.5-star book for me, but the second half of the book makes up for some of the slog that must be undertaken to get through the first half; there are a lot of facts that must be recounted in order to establish the atmosphere in Vichy France, and unfortunately, the first half of the book suffers from too much telling, and not enough showing.
I would also have to agree with those who suggest that Moorehead attempts to pack too much into A Train in Winter. There were 230 women packed on to the train that left France for Auschwitz, and at times, it feels as if Moorehead is trying to tell each woman’s story, but there simply isn’t enough of a story in order to include them all. If she had focused on a smaller number of the women, perhaps the reader would feel more of a connection to them than is possible when trying to remember which woman is which.
That said, the second half of the book, which takes place at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, is brutal, heartbreaking, terrifying — and impossible to put down. It then becomes clear that it almost doesn’t matter that you can’t remember the differences between the women — their story is so intimately tied together that it can never fully be untied. This is what gives the book its power — and lifts it from a mediocre book into something a little more special.