Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson*****

“The memory of an elephant, the cleverness of a fox, the guile of a serpent, and the fierceness of a panther.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcaude ran the largest spy network in France during World War II. Charismatic, organized, intelligent and completely fearless, she was possessed of such obvious leadership skills that even very traditional Frenchmen (and a few Brits as well) came to recognize and respect her authority and ability. I had never heard of her before this galley became available; thanks to go Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now. 

Fourcade was born into a wealthy family, and this fact almost kept me from reading this biography. Fortunately, others read it first and recommended it, and once I began reading I quickly caught onto the fact that no one without financial resources could have initiated and organized this network. At the outset, there was no government behind them and no funding other than what they could contribute themselves or scrounge up through the kinds of contacts that rich people have. There are a few fawning references to some of her associates—a princess here, a Duke there—that grate on my working class sensibilities, but they are fleeting. 

Fourcade’s organization ultimately would include men and women from all classes, from magnates and royals to small businessmen, train conductors, waitresses, postal clerks and so on. Some were couriers delivering information about Nazi troop placement and movement, U-boats and harbors and so forth, whereas others quietly eavesdropped as they went about their daily routines. Once they were able to network with the British, the organization became better supplied and funded, and it had an enormous impact on the fascist occupiers, which in turn drew more enemy attention to the resistance itself; among the greatest heroes were those that piloted the Lysander planes that delivered supplies and rescued members that were about to be captured. But not everyone was rescued; a great many were tortured, then killed. Fourcade herself was arrested twice, and both times escaped. 

If you had tried to write this woman’s story as fiction, critics would have said it lacked credibility. 

In reading about Fourcade, I learned a great deal more about the Resistance than I had previously known; in other nonfiction reading this aspect of the Allied effort was always on the edges and in the shadows, not unlike the spies themselves. In addition, I also came to understand that France was barely, barely even a member of the Alliance. The British bombed a ship to prevent fascists from seizing it, but they didn’t evacuate it first, and an entire ship full of French sailors were killed, leading a large segment of the French population to hate the British more than the Germans. Then too, there was a sizable chunk of the French government that welcomed the fascists. 

Revisionist histories will have us believe that the Nazis were opposed but that France was powerless to stop them, and for some that was true; yet the ugly truth is that it was the French themselves that incorporated anti-Semitism into their governmental structure before the Germans demanded it. Vichy cops had to take an oath “against Gaullist insurrection and Jewish leprosy.” When planning D-Day, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even want to include the French in the planning or even inform them that the Allies were invading. Let them find out the same way that the Germans would, he suggested to Churchill. But the British insisted on bringing in friendly French within the orbit of De Gaulle, not to mention those around a pompous, difficult general named Henri Gouroud, a hero from World War I who had to be more or less tricked into meeting with the Allies at the Rock of Gibraltar. The guy was a real piece of work, and some of the humorous passages that are included to lighten up an otherwise intense story focus on him.

I have never read Olson’s work before, but the author’s note says that she writes about “unsung heroes—individuals of courage and conscience who helped change their country and the world but who, for various reasons, have slipped into the shadows of history.” Now that I’ve read her work once, I will look for it in the future. 

Highly recommended to historians, feminists, and those that love a good spy story, too.

And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance, by Jacques Lusseyran *****

  and there was light Lusseyran was sighted at birth, but a childhood accident caused him to lose his vision. Neither Lusseyran nor his parents–comfortable members of the petit bourgeoisie–let his blindness define him in the way that most people living in the more developed nations of the early 20th century would have done. Instead, they promoted his mental and physical development and sacrificed some of their own comfort to be sure their son continued to receive an education, although the law didn’t guarantee him one. In return, he gave not only his parents but the world a hero, one who became a leader of the French Resistance.

I have heard it suggested that those who lose one sense make up for it with the others, and so those whose eyes no longer see, or see nothing except shadow and light, hear, smell, touch and taste more acutely. Lusseyran claims that even as a child, he navigated his home town largely by smell; the baker was this way, and the creamery that way. And so the foundation was laid.

Though his education was challenged by instructors who were reluctant to have a blind student present, and who sometimes threw up nearly impossible requirements, such as reluctance to permit him the use of the braille typewriter his parents bought for him, yet others inspired him and moved him forward. Teachers, many of us at least, aspire to be someone like Jacques’s history teacher. He describes this man’s fire, and the bond that his passion for his subject and his vocation created:

“He wanted us to be exactly as we really were, funny if we couldn’t help it, furious if we were angry…his learning made us gasp. He made numbers and facts pour down on us like hail…the syllabus for history stopped at 1918…but for him this was no obstacle, for he would go ahead without any syllabus. He went past all the barriers…”

The teacher would continue to teach at the end of the school day, excusing anyone who wanted to leave (and here I think of the yellow school buses that constrict the schedules of US public school students so often now). He says that everyone stayed. “Naturally.”

The dynamic time in which he lived no doubt was responsible for much of their enthusiasm; history was clearly being created with each breath they took. Their history teacher told them–relying upon texts he had read in the original Russian–of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the Stalinism that had taken hold thereafter, of the purges. He spoke of the United States, Roosevelt, of initiative and imagination triumphant.

And so Lusseyran was not yet past adolescence when he felt he had a duty to change the world, to participate in driving out the Nazi occupiers. He tells us that it was understood for some time among himself and the friends he trusted to keep their dangerous knowledge confidential, that he would be the leader of their youth Resistance movement. Others would listen and observe to see what other individuals might join them, but of course, there were spies and each person they trusted could instead lead them to their own deaths. It was very dangerous.

And in such a circumstance, blindness became an unusual asset. New potential recruits would be led to their interview, but instead of an office or home, they were led through a labyrinth of boxes and crates in a completely unlit warehouse. Their interviewer waited at the end of this maze, and he interviewed them in the dark. He could detect falseness of character or fear of exposure from those who would betray the Resistance by listening to the nuances of their voices, and those individuals who weren’t deemed worthy were left to find their own way back out. Of course, the location sometimes had to change, but the setup was the same.

Lusseyran’s heroism is a testament to initiative and idealism. The reader will have to learn the rest of his story the way I did; the narrative is as skilled and engaging as the political work that preceded it. It is one of the most unusual and inspirational autobiographies I have encountered.

Highly recommended.