Title: The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel
Author: Sarah Steele
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 30th November 2021
Synopsis: The Schoolteacher of Saint Michel is a heartrending and deeply moving story of love and hope in World War II from the USA Today bestselling author of The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon.
The war taught her to fight. The children taught her to hope…
Inspired by real acts of bravery and resistance, The Schoolteacher of Saint Michel is a heartrending and deeply moving story of one woman’s courage and sacrifice during World War II, from the USA Today bestselling author of The Missing Piece of Nancy Moon.
‘My darling girl, I need you to find someone for me . . .’
France, 1942. At the end of the day, the schoolteacher releases her pupils. She checks they have their identity passes, and warns them not to stop until the German guards have let them through the barrier that separates occupied France from Free France. As the little ones fly across the border and into their mothers’ arms, she breathes a sigh of relief. No one is safe now. Not even the children.
Berkshire, present day. A letter left to her by her beloved late grandmother Gigi takes Hannah Stone on a journey deep into the heart of the Dordogne landscape. As she begins to unravel a forgotten history of wartime bravery and sacrifice, she discovers the heartrending secret that binds her grandmother to a village schoolteacher, the remarkable Lucie Laval . . .
Hannah Stone’s family history is shrouded in mystery – there are stories and secrets that have been kept for decades. As Hannah settles her father into care and struggles with being alone as her husband Jack works in India, a letter from her grandmother catches her attention. Gigi has asked Hannah to find Lucie Laval, a schoolteacher from the small French village of Saint-Michel. As Hannah explores Saint-Michel and the history surrounding it during World War Two – and the river that demarcated the occupied half from the free half in 1942, she starts to uncover stories about new friends, family and the famed Lucie Laval and the many acts of bravery that Lucie and her friends undertook during the days of 1942 when the Nazis roamed the streets – but it is what Lucie’s actions meant to Gigi and her family that highlight what could have happened in the past and in the future.
Sarah Steele goes between the present day (presumably a COVID-free 2020 or 2021) and 1942, where we meet Lucie and her friends, who are working to ensure the safety of the village children and do what they can to prevent the Nazis taking over completely and destroying everything they know. The scars and memories of what happened last into the future as Hannah unlocks the stories and memories of those who were there and finds out about what really happened – and what links her Gigi to Lucie Laval. She does so in a touching way, that allows the story to be engaging, heartbreaking and hopeful in equal parts as Hannah learns that she too must contend with tragedy in her own life from the past.
It is a story of family and humanity – the love we have for our family and the brave acts that everyday people undertook – at great risk to their own lives. The role that they played in history would become important throughout the novel as family secrets came to light for all towards the end – as they inevitably do in these sorts of novels, and allow the reader to try to solve the mystery as they read by dangling hints along the way that show how each character is connected, and what it means to find a place where you truly feel at home.
Novels like this, inspired by true events are ones that offer a link to the past and to stories that we may not always encounter in history class. Once we have read a story such as this, we can go on and do our own research, and find out the real people behind the fictionalised story and characters, because it is often in the hidden or untold histories that we find the most interesting characters, and those people who sacrificed so much become the ones we wish we had learnt more about. The battles and key events we learn about are important but so are the stories that come from the home fronts, from the places that weren’t as big as Nuremberg or the various fronts and theatres of war. The stories from behind the battles are the ones that give more human faces to the war – what ordinary people did when faced with the Nazi regime, and how they found ways to resist and save those who needed help.
Perhaps this is why the stories like this that are inspired by true stories that may get overlooked in the curriculum are so important – because they allow us to glimpse what it must have been like, and we get to do it in a way that can be more engaging than textbooks. Textbooks can give us the facts, the names of the key players and other statistics – but they don’t always gives us the personal side. Which is where historical fiction – well-written historical fiction – can come into play, and bolster our knowledge and capacity for understanding and empathy, as well as leading us to research things we might not have thought about if we were to just stick to the academic writing. I have loved exploring history through both means.
I loved the heart in this book, and the beautiful focus on familial love and friendship. To me, this makes books all the more powerful because it shows that there is more to love than romantic love. And I think we have too few books that feature pre-established relationships between spouses. This one allowed Hannah to be who she was and grow in her own way and in her own time, and that was one of the other things that made it truly special to read. It also evoked a powerful sense of place and time in France. A great read!