For our students, active learning is a reality most days on The Village. Sometimes this is because we hold classes on a terrace right next to the historic events we are discussing, and sometimes it’s because our language students are out using in real time the lessons they’re working on for their French or Spanish classes. But even when we build the syllabi for our courses and choose books, we try to assemble materials that will not only teach our students what we want them to learn but also impact them emotionally. So that what they learn becomes associated with how they felt about where they were when they did their reading and their learning.
An example of this selection criteria at play is the novel Suite Française, a novel by Irène Némirovsky, about the early period of the Nazi occupation of France. There are many books that might be used to teach this era. (And films, too.) But for our students, who are living in small-town France and can find without even looking examples of setting and character that suggested in this novel, there’s a special power to the book and its tragic story that resonates because of where they are when they read it. The power is magnified, even, when they learn about the tragic personal story that was the author’s life and death as well as about how the literal artifact of the book itself had its own story or death and life as it lay ignored for decades in a pile of the late author’s memoirs and papers, only to be found, finally, and published as one of the greatest literary events in French letters of the post-war period.
Here, in a brief review written by one of our alumni, is one student’s account of this book and how it was for her to meet it for the first time in France:
“Suite Francaise depicts an aspect of World War II that is not often explored in the classroom: the effects of Germany’s occupation of France starting on June 14, 1940. The first section of the book,Tempête en juin, describes the flight of different families from their homes during the German invasion. Surprisingly, many people, despite having lived through a war already, were incredibly ill-prepared for what leaving their home behind would mean. The wealthy in particular were ignorant of the urgency of the situation, and could be seen piling furniture, toys and candy for their children, and embroidered sheets in several cars.
The second section, Dolce, contains a rather more shocking concept: the fact that many French women fell in love with the German soldiers occupying their towns. While this may seem preposterous, it is not unrealistic. After all, despite the atrocious acts committed during World War II, many soldiers were simply young men, excited to serve their country and participate in battles. It is young men such as these who were occupying French towns, and so it should come as no surprise that the widowed or abandoned women there took an interest in them. Dolce is the surprisingly tender and lonely story of a young French woman named Lucile who is married off by her father to a man she does not love. While her husband is away at war, she is left to stay in an empty house with her cold, disapproving mother-in-law. During the occupation, a handsome young German soldier comes to live in their house, and slowly, the two begin to fall for each other. However, distrust and the gruesome reality of the war stand in the way of their future together.
This book has taught me that the truth of Germany’s occupation of France is far more complicated than it had seemed, and I hope to learn even more about it in my history class this week. And the special poignancy I’ve felt in reading and discussing this novel while here in France is remarkable. Just as the incredibly sad history of its marvelous author is at once tragic and unforgettable. And I know I’m not going to be a history or literature major or anything, but I can say for sure that I won’t ever forget this book and what it taught me.”
EP. Village 13