Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

Title: A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
Author: Caroline Moorehead

Genre: Non-Fiction (WWII / Vichy France / Nazis / Biography / French Resistance / Women Revolutionaries)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (11/8/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of 230 women who, during WWII, were rounded up for participating in the French Resistance and imprisoned before being shipped in a cattle train to Auschwitz in 1943.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I always love these kind of dramatic black-and-white photographs -- but I don't know if it fits the book exactly. The British/Canadian cover comes closer to conveying the friendship aspect of this book, although I think it's too cheery.

First line: 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.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy for the WWII scholar in your life -- it's good!

Why did I get this book?: The lives of women during wartime is an interest of mine, and I'm especially fascinated by those involved with the Resistance during WWII. The book's emphasis on the friendships of these woman was an additional draw.

Review: I don't read a ton of nonfiction related to WWII because I'm a softie and a wimp. (And mildly obsessive when it comes to traumatic events; I'm a chronic 24/7 CNN-er during disasters.) All this is to say it has to be a certain kind of nonfiction to lure me from my slightly safer world of fiction.

Moorehead's book intrigued me from the first for two reasons: one, I loved her bio of the marvelous Martha Gellhorn; and two, I love books that emphasize female friendships. That this book was set among WWII French resistors just sealed the deal (one of my favorite films is based on Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Grey).

This isn't an easy book to get into: Moorehead has a brisk, dry style and the first three or four chapters are a barrage of people, places, dates, and events. It is easy to feel overwhelmed but these chapters rather quickly sketch out the feel of France under German occupation, the changes the Germans wrought, and context-ing the roots of the various Resistance movements. (For example, there are numerous Parisian neighborhoods with communist families; Moorehead later argues that the women who were active in the Communist Party fared better than some of the non-political prisoners due to the training and upbringing.)

The book went from merely interesting to gripping when the narrative moved from establishing context and setting to recounting the torturous way these resistors were treated upon being captured. Moorehead interviewed a few of the survivors still living, as well as their families, and used a wealth of other materials to make those years of imprisonment real. As the subtitle suggests, she does focus on the friendships between these women, who all agree it was part of the reason they survived as long as they did.

There are a ton of photographs included in the book which is marvelous (and disturbing and heartbreaking) and makes the stories of these women all the more real. Upon finishing, I teared up: Moorehead made these women real for me and I felt real sorrow for them. Even those who survived faced ongoing pain and heartache. Despite that, I don't regret reading this, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in women's lives during wartime. This is a slender book -- about 300 pages -- and it's gripping. I know I just got done emphasizing how sad it is but because of that, it's a compelling read.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26. For another entry, check out my interview with Ms. Moorehead.


  1. Though this book sounds as if it was interesting, it also sounds a little dry. I recommend a book to you called Resistance, which is a French Woman's memoir of being part of the French resistance, and her tribulations. It was excellent, and so, so moving. A great read in my opinion, and one that I haven't forgotten. Very honest and informative review on this one today!

  2. I am glad I read your review because I will be reading this one soon and it sounds like the first few chapters may be rough, so I'll definitely keep that in mind!

  3. @Heather: Sounds amazing -- I will def look for it. I'm kind of hot on Resistance fighters again -- ordinary people doing such extraordinary things!

    @Lola: Do give it time -- I felt a bit wiped to start but after a while you'll note that you're starting to recognize people and places and then, bam! the crazy good/emotional stuff.

  4. I cannot wait to read this and I just found out this morning that I WON a copy of it from Goodreads.com!! Hooray!!

  5. I'm looking forward to starting this book tomorrow, but now I'm worried it might be too dry for my tastes. Still, it sounds like if I can get through the beginning, it only gets better. Great review! I'll link to it on War Through the Generations.

  6. I'm adding this one and the one Zibilee recommended to my WishList :) I love this kind of read :)

  7. This really sounds interesting. WWII books aren't usually from women's point of view so it would be something new. And good to know it gets less dry if I ever get my hands on this.

  8. @K13: Oh, fun! I hope you enjoy -- it was super good. I hopped over to your blog and saw you're reading Next to Love -- that's another book that I felt lifted up the lives of the women impacted by WWII in a novel way -- loved it.

    @Anna: Yes -- it improved as it went on, and the beginning wasn't bad, just dry and a bit overwhelming. But crucial -- I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for linking my review!

    @Peppermint: I know, I'm excited about Zibilee's book rec, too -- it sounds marvelous.

    @Elysium: I always find I prefer learning history via the experience of women -- if you do grab this, give it time -- it's so worth it!

  9. @All: For any of you who are interested and in the US/CA, I just found out I can giveaway a copy! I've updated this post with the form to enter!

  10. I am sure I would enjoy it, and be really sad by it too cos *sniff* How could it end happy

  11. This book had me from start to finish, and I am so eager to post my review of it. It was incredibly emotional, and one of the parts I plan to focus on is the feeling of absolute abandonment these women feel after the war is over - the ones who survived. That they have no idea where to go or who will be there or what the country is like. Or the fact that they have no real justice because France wanted to forget the Vichy part in it. It was horrific and real, and I learned so much. It was a truly fascinating book.

  12. I have been in the mood for WWII books and would love to add this one to my list. Thanks for the giveaway!


  13. This sounds interesting, it's the first review I've read on it. Thanks for the rview and giveaway!

  14. wow, sounds like an incredibly compelling read!

  15. Adding to my wish list, too. I've read several WWII era novels this year and it's time for some nonfiction!

  16. I'm looking forward to reading this book later on, but alas the WWII connoisseur in my life is on this tour and has the book...so that's of the holiday list.

    Thanks for the honest review.

  17. You already had me wanting to read this book (I love WWII-era true stories) and then you mentioned the pictures and I'm totally hooked. Photographs make stories like this all the more real to me.

    I can't wait to read this one myself. Thanks so much for the great review and for being on the tour Audra!

  18. thanks for this wonderful giveaway which interests me greatly. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  19. A great novel set during my favorite era. Many thanks. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  20. I've read almost no non-firction related to WW II. I'm a wimp and a softee and find the fiction difficult to get through sometimes. But I love the idea that the friendship among the women resistors who were captured and tortured helped them survive. Some of this book sounds like a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of women supporting each other; and some of it sounds a little dry but I understand that the back drop had to be sketched out.

    Your review is fantastic, thank you! And I think this cover id fantastic, love black & white!

  21. I'm interested in the fact that you've read other work by her; I definitely want to now, having read this one. I didn't find the beginning slow, but maybe I've just read some reeeeeallly boring history books in comparison! Heh.

  22. I love reading fiction about WWII, but don't read a lot of non-fiction (the last one was Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken). I am intrigued by this book though and have just picked it up from the library!

  23. I've read such great WWII book this year that I was a bit let down with this one. I loved the subject matter, but like you, had issues with the voice. For me, the voice got in the way too much.