“Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her father Daniel live in Paris where he is a locksmith who keeps track of thousands of locks and keys for the National Museum of Natural History. When Marie-Laure loses her sight at the age of six, her father builds her a model of the area they live in, complete with every manhole cover, building, street and lane represented. The intricate model allows Marie-Laure to memorize the area and confidently navigate it without fear. A remarkably talented woodworker, he also creates puzzles for her each year on her birthday that involve up to a dozen or more moves to solve, and she manages to do so in minutes each time to his amazement.
As war nears, the museum curators are forced to pack up the valuable pieces and move them to safety. One such item is a precious stone that is kept safely behind a number of doors, and never shown on display. Called the Sea of Flames, the large blue diamond has a red occlusion at its center, and a storied past. The stone is said to have the power to keep its owner safe while bringing ruin and death to all around them. Each time it has changed hands, its providence has repeated itself. Before moving it, Daniel is asked to create three likenesses of the stone, and then each of the four stones are given to four trusted couriers, neither one knowing whether the one they have is the real one or not in the hopes that it can be moved safely.
Daniel is given one of the stones just before he and Marie-Laure leave Paris for Saint-Malo. With war closing in on them, the trip is a perilous one, and much of it is made on foot. Marie-Laure is afraid to leave her home and the security of the area she knows, but believes that her father will keep her safe, and holds on to his promise that he will never leave her. Great uncle Etienne and Madame Manec welcome them when they arrive and give them shelter and food. Daniel keeps the stone safe and begins to build another model for Marie-Laure, promising her that when it is safe he will take her outside.
Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are orphans who live in Children’s House in Zollverein, Germany. Werner teaches himself the basics of electronics, inspired by a radio program hosted by a Frenchman. Soon he is building radios of his own, and increasing their range and power instead of just repairing them. When word of his prowess gets out, he is invited to audition to attend the National Political Institutes of Education. He is admitted, but is miserable and longs to return to his sister and the only home he knows. Instead, he is educated and singled out for his electronic ability, asked to create a transceiver that would enable them to locate illegal radio transmissions. When he manages to do so, he is fast tracked into a uniform and sent out to hunt and destroy any they can find.
Marie-Laure’s father is arrested and sent to a work camp, but the stone remains hidden in the model of Etienne’s house where Marie-Laure eventually discovers it. Another man is searching for the fabled Sea of Flames, and manages to locate three out of the four stones that left the museum. Unfortunately, they were all fakes, but Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is motivated to find this particular prize. Von Rumpel is dying, cancer spreading through his body, and he hopes that the stone has the power to keep him alive. Etienne is detained and Marie-Laure is home alone when von Rumpel comes, still hunting his stone. She hides in the attic with the radio and transmitter Etienne built and used to relay messages for the resistance. He spends days in the house hunting while Marie-Laure hides until Werner arrives, having heard her broadcast in Etienne’s place, and saves her from von Rumpel redeeming himself just a little as he keeps her identity safe and helps her to escape after learning that it was her uncle who had inspired him as a child with his broadcasts.
Two children on opposite sides of the war find each other in the middle, and remember each other for a lifetime. Doerr brings these children to life in a time when peace seems impossible, and survival unlikely.”
You might be interested in seeing images of Saint-Malo.
I don’t know how it could be more beautiful.
from the Saint-Malo Tourism site:
“The success of the Battle at Normandy caused German troops to retreat to Brittany. Initially, Saint-Malo wasn’t considered a target due to its weak garrison numbers. However, the number of German soldiers posted to Saint-Malo thereby increasing their numbers to a total of 13,000 troops.
© Flickr / PhotosNormandie
The strikes led at Saint-Malo and Dinard were more difficult than planned, and an Allied offensive on August 6 was a disastrous failure. In addition to its garrison inside the city walls, Saint-Malo also benefited from artillery on the island of Cézembre that was capable of reaching land troops. Thanks to efficient artillery firing against the Germans, American soldiers managed to infiltrate the city on August 9. Troops surrendered to the 330th infantry regime and, short on ammunition, the Germans could no longer defend themselves.
A City Greatly Affected by the Allied Landing
Today, intramural Saint-Malo is very well-known for its medieval homes and walk on top of its ramparts. The city is in large part reconstructed; the majority of the historical center was destroyed during fierce fighting. On August 6, 1944, the American Army bombed the city whose reconstruction would last until 1972 with the restoration of the Saint-Vincent Cathedral. The National Fort located in the Saint-Malo Bay also suffered material and human losses among the inhabitants of the corsair city.”
I was not aware of this medieval city or the brave people who lived there and in the surrounding region during WWII until I read All the Light We Cannot See. I have long been aware of the invasion of Normandy because my father drove a supply truck onto Omaha Beach the day after D-Day. He told me that he was informed that the engine would not stop if it was submerged in water. So, when he drove off of the truck transport and the water reached his ankles, then his knees, and then his waist, he could only keep going. Bullets whizzed past the truck, but he made it to the beach. I only wish I had asked him more questions.
So, when I met the most amazing woman last week in California, I asked as many questions as I could think to ask. She is the 94 year old mother of a friend and she was born and raised in the Brittany region of France. I will call her, “Marie.” When WWII broke out, she was 17 years old. “I remember the day they told us that the Germans were invading. At first I cried, but then we had to go on with it. What else could you do?”
She went on to explain that the citizens of the area were deprived of food and shelter, clothing, and safety. If you were caught listening to a radio, you could be taken out and killed. Her family hid a radio in the wall of their home. She said that the Germans wore heavy boots and you could hear them coming. They never did find the hidden radio.
Marie was a waitress at a cafe when she met the young man who would become her husband. They decided to have their wedding out in a field, far away from the town center and hidden from the eyes of the Germans. The wedding took place in the afternoon, and there was such a celebration with family and friends that they could not make it back to their homes in time for the curfew. “We stayed all night out in the field!”
Then, Marie showed my her wedding band. She wore it for 68 years of a happy marriage. “We needed a wedding band and could not afford one. A man came into the restaurant and he wanted some butter for his mother. So, I traded a pound of butter for a wedding ring!”
Her dear husband died many years ago, but she continues to wear this beautiful ring. It could not be more dear if it were inlaid with diamonds and rubies.
“One day I saw my friend coming down the street with a suitcase,” she said with a smile. “I asked her where she was going and she said she was going to America. We decided that we would go, too. We had a small baby and we were hungry.” With their baby daughter they made their way to New Jersey. Her husband found a job in just a few days.
I was curious about homes that might be for sale in Saint-Malo today. These real estate offerings are from a French real estate compay, Mer Et Demeures. Here is an apartment:
This home that is near the beach:
Another house for sale in the walled city of Saint-Malo:
This home in Saint-Malo is close to the beach.
When Anthony Doerr learned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for his book All the Light We Cannot See he and his young son were eating ice cream in Paris. That had to have been a very good day! It just may have been as memorable as the day I met Marie and learned of her struggles in a small town very near to Saint-Malo.
What I hope you will take away with you from reading this account is to remember to ask questions of World War II soldiers, their loved ones, and people who had to live through it. They have a great deal of information to share. They are heroes!