A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

22nd November 2011

* I received this book through TLC  Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Trish for the opportunity to read and review.

Whenever I talk about World War II, the same question always pops up: How did it happen? And while the answers to that question could fill many volumes, Caroline Moorehead’s book A Train in Winter is an excellent example – at least in part – of how atrocities happen.

It’s 1940, and Occupied France is a mostly peaceful France. The first lines of the book emphasize this: “It seemed not an invasion but a spectacle. Paris itself was calm and almost totally silent….And when they stopped staring, the Parisians returned home and waited to see what would happen.”

Many did nothing, but Charles de Gaulle called for the French people to resist the Germans. A Train in Winter is the story of 230 women who did resist and who, in turn, were captured by their own government before being handed over to the Nazis as dissenters.

I have never before read such an in-depth breakdown of the changes in Occupied France and the effect on its people. Nor have I experienced a story of greater selflessness and hope. The 230 women originally captured are whittled down slowly to a small band of survivors who fared far better than those women without a support system within Auschwitz, bodily holding one another up during roll call and hiding sores and illnesses or broken bones, if necessary.

However, the part of this book that has left the most lasting impression on me – and the part I have discussed in greater detail than my mom, sister, aunt, or friends want to hear without reading the book, is the aftermath of the concentration camps. When these women are released, malnourished and physically and mentally scarred, they are in every sense of the word, displaced. They have no idea where to go or who they will see once they are there. Each woman arrives in the midst of a government trying to forget its own depravity after a war that ravaged the world in unbelievable ways, and each finds no one wants to hear about the unreality of a German concentration camp. This, to me, was and is one of the most real atrocities, our desire to forget and move on.

Coming home was, therefore, not the happiest experience, and Moorehead points out that “having lived so intensely together, depending on each other to stay alive, they were now forced apart: by geography, by families, by a world whose rules and ways they had forgotten and which, physically weak, quickly exhausted, prematurely aged, they had to learn again.”

Though I have read some great non-fiction this year (Manhunt, In the Garden of Beasts, The Paper Garden, Devil in the White City), this is by far my favorite and a must for anyone interested in World War II or the role of women in wartime.

Have you read this? Or is it going on your Christmas wish list? Also, does anyone have any recommendations for similar books?

Recommended for:

high school/college readers

book clubs

World War II buffs

women’s history buffs

  • Jen (and the Pen)

    I was so happy to see your review! I’ve been wanting to read this.

    • Jen! It’s so good to hear from you. Hope you’re doing well. As you can see, loved this book and hope you enjoy it.

  • Liz

    Recommend The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, a camp survivor who dedicated her life to other survivors and their tormentors.

    From the Pacific arena, Louis Zamperini’s story is told in Unbroken.

    British agents who were dropped into France were depicted in Wish Me Luck, a BBC series. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wish_Me_Luck
    The series seems to me to have drawn on Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE.

    • Liz – you are fantastic! Thank you so much for the recommendations. Unbroken is one I’ve been meaning to get but haven’t. I definitely want to pick that up and read it over the holidays. Thank you for the links as well.

  • Everything you said is true. You wrote the review I wanted to write. Wasn’t this book just astounding? It exactly conveyed the how of these horrors, the survival, the trying to live…omg. Blew my mind.

    • Audra – That means a lot coming from you because I always love your reviews. And yes, this book truly was astounding. I can’t quit thinking/talking about it. Have already passed it to my sis for her to read.

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  • These women coming home to anything less than a hero’s welcome is an absolute tragedy – they deserved so much better than what they received.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. Sounds like this is a book that needs to make its way onto my permanent bookshelf!

    • Heather – it’s definitely one to have for your bookshelves. It’s that good.

      And yes – it was so incredibly awful how each woman felt so adrift and unhappy after the war.

  • I am starting this one as soon as I finish my current book. I can’t wait!

    • It’s definitely effective and not one you’ll soon forget.

  • Liz

    The Hiding Place would be good for the holidays. Unbroken is inspiring. A Life in Secrets might be reserved if you found A Train … somewhat of a downer for the holidays. I fully intend to read A Train, but need to be in right frame of mind.

    Just came across this tantalizing bit: http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2011/11/hospital-in-paris.html

    • Oh wow! That site is so cool. Would love to see more of that. Fascinating.

      I understand about being in the right frame of mind. As soon as I finished mulling this one for a bit, I downloaded a British chick lit on my Nook. I definitely needed it, but keep in mind A Train in Winter is not wholly depressing or manipulative. It is, in many ways, an extremely triumphant story.

  • Liz

    Just finished Sarah’s Key. Not sure where I read about this book, although it recently has been adapted to film. A compelling story of complicity by some French and resistance by others. Some of the plot irritated me but generally a good book to try, once you’ve recharged on those cozies etc.

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  • I am not sure why, but I really find the WWII setting extremely fascinating to read. At the moment I am reading Camp Nine for a tour and that is very good. I just picked this one up from the library so hope I like it as much as you do!

    • I read Camp Nine recently, too and enjoyed it. This, though, is in a class of its own. If you’re at all interested in WWII, I think you’ll find it really fascinating.

  • Buriedinprint

    For a different angle on occupied France, I would recommend Rosemary Sullivan’s Ville Bel-Air. Sullivan, too, writes her non-fiction with a strong sense of narrative and, because she is dealing with individuals for whom a much more elaborate body of material exists, there are longer sections that read more like a novel. It’s also a more comfortable read in that it doesn’t move into the territory of the camps and lengthy incarcerations, but it’s still wartime, so I don’t mean to suggest it’s a light read, just that it’s a very different story than Moorehead’s.

    This really is an astonishing reading experience; I kept putting it down and then picking it up again. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I often wanted to. Just overwhelming!

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