Louis Morgan’s life is at a crossroads. A former CIA operative, he’s just lost his State Department job and his marriage is crumbling. So he goes to France, maybe to lose himself, maybe to find himself.
He walks from one town to the next, settling not far from Tours in the quiet village of Saint-Leon-sur-Deme, a place dotted with ancient caves where villagers store anything worth storing.
He quickly makes some acquaintances, including the young gendarme, Jean Renard, and likes the place well enough to buy an old, rundown house outside of town and begin renovating it.
During his renovations he uncovers a curious package under the floorboards – a box containing six small pistols called Liberators and a single sheet of faded type dated Jan. 12, 1941.
It was a handbill urging French citizens to resist the Nazi occupiers and to believe liberation from the Nazis is certain, if not immediate.
Among the local residents identified as working too closely with the Nazis was Yves Renard, who is Jean’s father and was Saint Leon’s young gendarme at the time.
It is as Louis and Jean are trying to learn about the handbill that the real story begins and it is fascinating. It’s a tale of the town under German occupation, when many townspeople led double lives. They still tended their crops, visited one another and otherwise went about their business but all the while they watched the Germans as carefully as the Germans were watching them.
The Germans had a simple rule for the town’s leaders. If the citizens didn’t cause any trouble they would be left alone. It was simple but impossible. Trouble came first in the form of anti-German graffiti – red V’s splashed on walls all over town.
The culprits, teenagers, were tried and locked away. That led to the first “Liberation!” handbill, the one Louis found years later.
The local schoolteacher was blamed for the handbill and that was the end of him - though not the end of the handbills. German crackdowns were predictable and severe.
When a German soldier was killed, the town’s leaders were ordered to draw up a list of 50 residents to be executed five at a time until the culprit was caught.
Saint Leon was populated during the war by ordinary people who found themselves capable of extraordinary deeds.
They were shopkeepers, farmers, mechanics and housewives.
Many, including brothers Onesime and Jean Josquin, performed a variety of tasks to complicate life for the Germans or speed the day of reckoning. Some residents helped allied pilots or escorted Jewish refugees to safety or simply scouted whatever a coded radio message from London told them to scout.
Many in the resistance did not know whether neighbors were on their side, neutral or collaborated with the Germans. Because Reynard, the gendarme, was concerned with keeping Saint Leon peaceful – as were the Germans – he was suspected of working with them. Although some residents trusted him, it didn’t help his reputation that he was among residents whose names appeared as suspected collaborators on the “Liberation!” handbills.
No only did members of the resistance not all know one another, they also didn’t all have the same goals. Some cells simply wanted to be rid of the Germans; others considered communists as much the enemy as the Germans, and weren’t above framing fellow French citizens they knew or suspected were communists – even if it meant working with the Germans.
The author does a masterful job of weaving the quest of Louis and Jean Renard in with the lives of Saint Leon’s villagers during World War II. He deserves credit as well for bringing to life an entire roster of multi-dimensional characters in such a way that the reader feels part of their triumphs as well as their tragedies.
Steiner has done his historical research, his prose is crisp and he tells a powerful story.
Walt Braun is the Manhattan Mercury’s editorial editor.