An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two
Written by Caroline Moorehead
Format: Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-35695-6 (0-307-35695-7)
Pub Date: April 10, 2012
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What was the first inspiration for A Train in Winter?
Many years ago, I was sent a memoir, part prose, part poetry, written by Charlotte Delbo, one of the women on the train. I became fascinated by the idea of all these very different women, from different backgrounds and cultures, the youngest sixteen and the eldest sixty-eight, and how they helped each other survive.
How was writing A Train in Winter different from writing your previous books?
I have become increasingly interested in the idea of writing biography through history, and history through the lives of ordinary men and women. What drew me to this group was their very ordinariness. They did not start out as heroines. They simply behaved as they believed they should. In the past, I have tended to write about individual characters – this is my first book about a group of people.
What was the greatest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
The greatest problem was how, technically, to write a book about 230 women in such a way that you got to know and identify with them. For this I had to choose six or seven main characters, and range the others, so to speak, around them. My hope is that by getting to know well at least some of them, the various things that come in about the others simply fit in.
In your research for A Train in Winter you met several of the survivors of the Convoi des 31000. Could you say something about that experience, and what you learned from them, and how speaking with them shaped your work on the book?
When I started work, seven were still alive; two died while I was doing my research. In all, I spoke to four – at length, meeting them several times. I also met the families of some twenty others, who gave me letters and papers. I was also able to do research in the French police archives, and in those of the Ministry of Defence, as well as the different organizations of Resistance people. The most important thing for me was getting the voices of the women right, conveying their stories in a way that was faithful to their experiences.
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
A picture of courage, resourcefulness and friendship, among very ordinary women; and how friendship can make the difference between life and death in situations of extreme adversity.
Can you suggest some reasons why the history you uncover in A Train in Winter remained obscured for so long?
Hard to say. Until 1970 the French were very reluctant to examine the Second World War and the German Occupation. Since then, bit by bit, stories, histories and films have emerged, filling in the story. I think why no one thought to explore this one was that the 230 women on the train were women (the Resistance, in France, is traditionally perceived as being about men), that there were so few of them – the only French Resistance women in four years of Occupation to be sent to the death camps – and that in their case it was the French police rather than the Germans who rounded them up.
If you visited a book club conversation about your book, what would you say to help guide the discussion?
I would talk about courage, and how casual and unplanned it can be; about friendship between women, its strengths and weaknesses and how crucial it can be; about France under the German Occupation, and the crucial part played by the French police and the Vichy government in arresting, torturing and deporting unwanted people.
From the Hardcover edition.
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