I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. Ever since I was a kid and would devour American Girl and Dear America Diary books, I’ve loved stories that put you in one person or a couple people’s shoes during a certain event in history.
Specifically, I’ve also always been drawn to WWII stories. Perhaps it’s because I was of an age where every couple of years a Holocaust survivor would visit our school and share their horrifying experiences. Maybe it’s because the war is a collective memory/stain that much of the world shares, no matter where or how old you are. Or maybe it’s just because I know my grandpa served in the Navy during that time. Whatever the reason, I’ll always gravitate to a WWII story, especially when it’s well-written and features a range of emotions. Bonus if there’s a coming-of-age element to it.
All the Light We Cannot See is just that: a well-written novel spanning several emotions, both for the characters and the reader. It also happens to be a great Bildungsroman. (There’s your vocab word for the day. Also appropriate given the arrival of my newest Out of Print purchase this week.)
All the Light We Cannot See primarily focuses on two characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is a girl of six when the story starts in 1934 and she goes blind from congenital cataracts. “Bilateral. Irreparable. ‘Can you see this?’ ask the doctors. ‘Can you see this?’ Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life” (27). This blindness adds several layers of hardship, suspense, and triumph to the story that would not have been present had Marie-Laure been able to see. With the amount of WWII stories out there, any new perspective an author can introduce helps make a story come alive, especially when they can add so many additional sensory elements (see below quote). When Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris in 1940, they go to the town of Saint-Malo on the sea to live with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne. He is reclusive and afraid of the outside world, but he and Marie-Laure build a strong bond. Marie-Laure will live out the rest of the war in the tall house tucked away in Saint-Malo.
“Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom to the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.” (146)
Werner Pfennig will make his way to Saint-Malo, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Werner and his younger sister Jutta are orphans living in the town of Zollverein, “a four-thousand-acre coal-mining complex outside Essen, Germany” (24). When their story begins, Werner is eight, and he and Jutta are being raised at Children’s House, “a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines” (24). Needless to say, Werner and his sister had a rough childhood. The highlight, though, is when Werner is 10 years old and he finds a crude radio, fixes it, and discovers a French science program for children. The show holds wonders for Werner and his sister, and is in part why he begins to tinker more and more with radios. As it turns out, Werner has a near-prodigious ability to understand and repair radios. Despite his impoverished circumstances, Werner’s abilities with radios attract the attention of the “right people” (AKA, Nazis). After fixing one Nazi family’s radio when other repairmen couldn’t, a series of events allows Werner to be selected to study at a “brutal academy for Hitler Youth.” From there, Werner joins the war, traveling across Europe to track down the German resistance from Russia to, eventually, Saint-Malo in France.
“Werner unscrews the backing and peers inside. The tubes are all intact, and nothing looks amiss. ‘All right,’ he mumbles to himself. ‘Think.’ He sits cross-legged; he examines the circuitry. … He tries to envision the bouncing pathways of electrons, the signal chain like a path through a crowded city, RF signal coming in here, passing through a grid of amplifiers, then to variable condensers, then to transformer coils. …
He sees it. There are two breaks in one of the resistance wires. … Could two men have missed something so simple? It feels like a gift. So easy! Werner rewinds the resistance track and splices the wires and plugs in the radio. When he turns it on, he half expects fire to leap out of the machine. Instead: the smoky murmur of a saxophone.” (82-3)
We follow Marie-Laure and Werner as they navigate childhoods cut short by war and by duty—duty to family, to country, to survive. As we follow their journeys, we get peeks at the future, flash-forwards to Saint-Malo and where their stories will converge, as we know they must. I call them flash-forwards instead of flashbacks, because while the story does start in 1944 when their paths are about to cross, the bulk of the novel’s timeline takes place previous to that point in time. The flash-forwards provide a heightened level of suspense while you’re reading so you can’t wait to get to that point, but by no means are you simply reading the rest of the novel just to get caught up.
Seeing how Marie-Laure copes with her blindness and following her as she discovers Braille novels is a journey itself. Additionally, her father helps her navigate her sightless life by building wooden models of where they live so Marie-Laure can learn the layout by touch to travel and explore on her own. Watching her struggle and then triumph is definitely a bright spot between a lot of darkness.
On the flip-side, watching Werner’s journey from orphan to Hitler Youth to Nazi is… not wonderful. When Werner is sent to the school at Schulpforta, it’s like some weird shadow-negative version of Hogwarts. He lives in a dorm with other boys his age, takes specialized classes for his coming profession, and learns new skills he never thought he would have the chance to even begin to learn. But instead of wizardry, it’s Nazism, and all the other boys are like extra-evil Slytherin jerks. (I’m a Slytherin, so I’m not hating on them, but they were a bunch of jerks when Harry was at school.) The boys must do as they’re told, blindly following commands. And if they don’t, well, let’s just say there’s no Skele-Gro in the infirmary…
Something I appreciate most about All the Light We Cannot See is that it really doesn’t leave many questions unanswered. Just recently I was listening to an episode of the Nerdist Podcast and the guests were talking about how they don’t always love or want shows that just end, leaving all kinds of questions because we’re just cut off in the middle of someone’s story. More often than not, we want stories that can be wrapped up in a nice little bow with no nagging thoughts, no but-whys and but-hows. All the Light We Cannot See has a good bow. It may be a little messy and tugs at your heart and mind for longer than expected, but any story that leaves you pondering and considering and weighing is a good one. And this is one of the better ones because even while I continue to think about it, I’m not trying to write the ending for the characters I wasn’t given. I know their endings—some extending well beyond the end of WWII—and I’m satisfied.
If you’re like me and love a well-written historical fiction novel, a compelling WWII story, or both, I suggest picking up All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. You won’t be disappointed.