Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Lise Dion's Secret of the Blue Trunk

The Secret of the Blue Trunk / Lise Dion; translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke.
Toronto: Dundurn, c2013.
168 p.

This is a strange little book; not because of the content, though. I started this month with some WWII fiction, and I'll end it with some WWII...fiction?

From all I could tell by looking this book up various places, it is a memoir of sorts -- it is based on the true story of Dion's mother, Armande Martel. And yet, it has been fictionalized enough that it is catalogued as fiction in my library (and by the official cataloguing records too). So, why is that? I can't seem to find a clear story, but as I understand it, this book was based on interviews Dion did with her mother and other Holocaust survivors, and then fictionalized the structure so that this book is purportedly a series of notebooks which Dion's mother wrote and stored in a trunk (alongside other mementos), which Dion then found after her death.

I'm not sure why she chose to structure it this way if she wanted memoir or verisimilitude. But as a story, if you consider it heavily fact-based fiction, I found it quite a good read.

Her mother/the mother character was unusual; she was a French Canadian nun who was in Brittany doing her novitiate at just the wrong time. WWII was beginning, and all British subjects in France were being arrested and sent to work camps. Armande was a bit too determined and chippy though, and so was separated from her sister nuns, and sent on to a far more vicious work camp. She quickly bonds with her 3 bunkmates, all very different from her -- a Polish girl, another Canadian who had been married to a Briton for years, and a member of the French resistance whom they all felt had been quite glamorous in her real life. They all support each other even as things get worse and worse, and help each other survive to the end of this terrible war.

The narrative voice in these journals is very dispassionate. Armande is fairly quiet, young and sheltered, so her interpretations of events can be quite naive. Her brief flirtation with a German soldier (a very young and unhappy boy) is described without a true sense of the danger of such conversations. The camp she finds herself in is horrible; one example is the guards feeling like their side is losing, and so taking it out on the prisoners by instituting a death lottery -- drawing a name each evening and shooting the woman whose name appears. The rather cold and distant narrative voice only makes this more chilling.

Once they are freed, however, she only faces more despair. Her chapter house decides that she must no longer be a virgin, that German soldiers surely violated her, so they basically boot her from their order and have her vows taken back by Rome. Armande is set adrift without the community she'd expected to return to for comfort and for her future. At that point, she states that the community of women in the camp was more charitable and truly good than any religious community, and she turns her back on the church forever.

Armande then lives another life after the war, not telling people about her past as a nun or much about the war, but her experiences shape her; she has what we might now call trauma aftereffects. Her husband, a younger man, had supported her throughout their lives together, and their adoption of his niece, Lise Dion, but unfortunately died quite young. Despite this up and down life and all the difficulties she faced, Armande was a strong woman who Dion clearly admired, enough to create this serious and loving tribute to her life, even if in fictional form.

I thought this was an unusual viewpoint on the war, from a perspective I've never heard before. Despite the issues with fact/fiction, I did find it an absorbing and unexpected read. Less emotion in the telling can sometimes throw the horrors into higher relief, and I felt that the narrative choices did just that in this book. Dion is mostly known in Quebec for her work as a humorist so this is far outside her usual milieu, and I thought she did a great job with the topic, reflecting the tone of the reportage that formed it. 


  1. This sounds like an intriguing WWII narrative, Melwyk. I am not sure if it's factual or fictional, memoir or story, or, most likely, a unique combination of sorts, and it sounds rather good to me. Excellent review, as always!

  2. What an interesting book. For all the WWII stories I've read this does sound quite different. I wonder if she chose to tell the story this way to capture different experiences but without having to name people directly - sort of to protect other's privacy maybe? Great review!

  3. Hunh: how curious! I've seen this on the shelf many times at the local library, and have often picked it up and mused upon the idea of reading it, so I'm very glad to know a little more about the story. Glad you found it so worthwhile!


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