The best books about formidable females in Nazi-occupied France

Sarah Steele Author Of The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel
By Sarah Steele

Who am I?

Having spent much time in France, I’ve been party to some incredible stories of the war years. The beautiful home owned by friends was once gifted by General De Gaulle to the village baker for his work hiding Resistance messages in loaves of bread; 90-year-old Jeanne remembers her father hiding Jewish families and helping them cross into free France; woodlands are punctuated by wooden crosses marking execution sites. For a writer, this is irresistible material, and it has been an honour to write The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel and The Lost Song of Paris in tribute to the many acts of bravery and resistance over four long years of German occupation.

I wrote...

The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel

By Sarah Steele,

Book cover of The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel

What is my book about?

The Schoolteacher of Saint-Michel tells the story of Lucie Laval, teacher in a Dordogne village split in two by the German demarcation line in 1942. Lucie is at the heart of a perilous operation to rescue Jewish children picked from the streets of Paris and pass them across to Free France, from where they will be taken to safety. Decades later, Hannah Stone honours her late grandmother’s request for her to visit Saint-Michel and find Lucie at Les Cerisiers, the Laval family home with its beautiful cherry orchard. The associated recipes Hannah finds in an old cookery book lead her to discover family secrets that have lain dormant for over half a century.

The books I picked & why

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Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

By Russell Braddon,

Book cover of Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

Why this book?

If ever another film should be made about an SOE agent in occupied France, it should tell the story of Nancy Wake, a brash, fearless Australian who caused havoc for the Nazis as ‘White Mouse’, the nominal leader of a huge Maquis network. I came upon Nancy’s file at the National Archives, and her SOE training report sums up this extraordinary woman: "She is tough, stubborn and plucky, with plenty of initiative. She has a strong personality, is jolly and sociable, but capable of being rather difficult." Those who came up against her would certainly have agreed, including her handlers. This book is a fantastic description of Nancy’s sometimes reckless bravery and incredible achievements inside enemy territory.

Charlotte Gray

By Sebastian Faulks,

Book cover of Charlotte Gray

Why this book?

There are few who have written about occupied France as transportingly and with the same level of carefully dripped research as has Sebastian Faulks. Charlotte Gray is arguably the textbook from which all other authors might learn. It is impossible to sit inside a French farmhouse kitchen alongside one of his characters and not believe you are there, nor to be drawn into the world of Charlotte as she completes her SOE training and is dropped in France to fight for her country and to discover the fate of her lover, missing RAF pilot Peter Gregory. Spies, collaborators, constant jeopardy and a cracking love story too—unmissable.

Never Forget You

By Jamila Gavin,

Book cover of Never Forget You

Why this book?

Jamila Gavin is best known for Coram Boy, which enjoyed huge success and went on to become a stage production. Her latest book is an incredibly moving story of four schoolfriends who go on to take very different and equally demanding roles during World War Two. The character of Noor is based on the real-life SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess who served as a wireless operator in Nazi-occupied Paris. This is a beautifully written, emotionally engaging story of women barely in their twenties, and a harrowing insight into life in Paris for Jewish families and those working to help them. 

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson,

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why this book?

On finishing my book, I wanted to write a companion novel, based this time in Paris. My inspiration for the lead character in that book was Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, an extraordinary woman who led the Alliance network in France, operating on behalf of SIS, as MI6 was then known. Her handler Sir Kenneth Cohen described her as the ‘textbook beautiful spy,’ but her intelligence and courage marked her out even more. Marie-Madeleine lived a life on the run, operating under the radar via a string of false identities, and even escaping imprisonment. Lynne Olsen’s riveting account tells the story of Marie-Madeleine’s terrifying existence in Nazi-occupied France, and of a heartbreaking love affair. 

Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky,

Book cover of Suite Française

Why this book?

I’ve chosen this book not just for the incredible picture it paints of German occupation, but for the story of its survival. Irène Némirovsky was a Ukrainian-Jewish author living in Paris with her young family until she was denied French citizenship and forced to flee to the French countryside. In July 1942 she was arrested during a period of vicious roundups by the Germans and transported to Auschwitz, where she died a month later from typhus. Irène’s two daughters were amongst the crowd that gathered daily outside the Hotel Lutetia in Paris, where returnees from concentration camps were processed after the liberation of France. Her daughter Denise kept the notebook containing Suite Française for fifty years before realising what it contained, and Irène’s masterpiece was finally published in 2004.

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Interested in France, the German occupation of Europe, and World War 2?

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