Monday, October 15, 2018

The Fortress NBtM

The war has not made much of difference in Alix’s life. Her father has seen to it that she grows up unaware, unworried, but safe in her tiny village under the cliffs of the Vercors. All around her he has built a fortress whose walls are impregnable—until the 27th of April, 1944. That day he makes a stupid mistake up on the cliff, and the walls of the Fortress start crashing down. Reality breaks into Alix’s life with unrelenting violence, unforeseen possibilities. From now on, every decision she makes will mean life or death.

Six weeks before D-Days, a thousand kilometers from the beaches of Normandy.

There are no generals in the French Vercors, just a handful of men and women against the Nazi war machine. They come from Bretagne, Paris, and Slovenia, and the villages up on the cliff. They are the Fortress.

“Honey, if anybody’s looking for it up here, it means you’re already dead. So it won’t matter to you. Listen now. People will call you on the other phone, the one downstairs, and give you coded messages. As a rule it will be about movements in our direction, Germans, Militia, or even new recruits for our camps. Remember, the security of Mortval depends on you. Here is a list of codes. You must memorize all of them and get rid of the list.”

She started to read. “The strawberries are in their juice. Your walnuts were wormy. You can’t put rabbit in the cassoulet.” She looked up. “Are they all about food?”

“No. Read the next one.”

“Yvette préfère les grosses carrottes. Well?”

“Well, it’s not about food.”

“Yvette préfère… Oh. I understand now. Did you come up with that one?”

“I thought it would be memorable.”

“It’s lovely. I bet the British are impressed.”

First I’ll tell you a little bit about myself. I was born near Grenoble, France, in a little village called Saint Gervais. I used to hate it growing up because it was so peaceful, and I was craving adventure. I couldn’t wait to get as far away as I could, and the United States was it. I immigrated in my early twenties with my high-school English and $176 in my pocket, for a baby-sitting and house-keeping job in DC, and never looked back. I love this nation, so unlike mine in spirit, where one person can change the world, and everyone believes he can be that person. In France people trust the government; here, people trust each other, and that’s what changes the world. That American dynamism, the palpable energy that somehow compels us to try again, that is what makes this country the most individually—and spiritually—empowering place on the planet. I now live in Clarke county, with my husband, Will, two beautiful daughters, and two dogs. Don’t get me started on the dogs.

If you search Vercors on the net, you’ll find hundreds of entries on rock-climbing, canyoning, hiking, food—it’s French after all—, but mostly, you’ll find History. If you dig further, you might find the story of a fifteen-year old boy, a resistant fighter whose name is forgotten, who was tortured and murdered by the Nazis in the summer of 1944. This boy is the reason why I wrote this book. The Fortress is my small contribution to honor those who fell for freedom, while others were collaborating.

I grew up there long after the liberation, on the wrong side of glory. Three of my uncles had been condemned to death for collaborating with the Vichy government, a puppet of the Nazis. Their sentences were eventually commuted to national disgrace, and ten years of forced labor—thanks to my father, who had fought with honor during the war and was able to litigate a lighter sentence with the subsequent political swamp of the liberation. My uncles had to leave the area to avoid being murdered, but we stayed. It would be too long to explain the kind of resentment and mistrust that centuries of hardship and war can breed in a small community, but to summarize the situation, we were the children of traitors to the nation. Growing up in that atmosphere of hostility made me want to understand what tears a nation apart, what makes people turn against their country, their neighbors, and themselves sometimes.

In fact, I just received an email from a childhood friend confessing to a conversation he had with one of our dear neighbors who is still perpetuating the lie that my father was a collaborator. My father was twice decorated for bravery during WWII, which is more than many of these people can say for themselves.

Hmmm, back to the book. Strangely enough, it is also a love story. The story of two mismatched people who would have never looked at each other had the war not thrown them in a battle for survival and revenge. Marc and Alix meet at the edge of defeat and find in each other the strength to overcome. Marc, a complicated man who is a blend of all the men I have loved, their steely strength and emotional secrets—no masculinity is too toxic there—I have always imagined as Russell Crowe. I’m not sure who Alix is, the woman I wish I were, I guess, calm but passionate, intelligent and organic. Isn’t it why we write, to re-invent ourselves? I love her brother, Régis, my own lost brother and the embodiment of my father’s youth, the kid who understands idealism as a cross for him to bear, not someone else; and Angélique, a very emancipated woman who sees herself as an experiment for God to test man’s endurance to Evil.

It was sometimes painful to go into the bad guys’ minds, because of the blend of contradicting emotions that went into their behavior, the hateful things they say and do, against their stunted humanity. I think the Militia chief, a broken soul with a pale glimmer of who he should have been, is the most effective in that sense.

The eight months it took to compose the first draft were almost hypnotic. The result was not good, but I didn’t know it, thank God, or I would have never submitted it. It was picked up by John W. Ware, a New York agent whose patient expertise is the professional touch behind my sometimes too emotional rhetoric—and the French turn of phrase. He did bug me about commas, though, and said that my tendency to lend human traits to things was odd. The best compliment was when he told he fell in love with Alix.

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as enjoyed writing it.

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Don’t forget to visit the other stops on the tour.

Author Bio and Links:
Madeleine Romeyer Dherbey was born in the French Alps, moved to the United States twenty-five years later, and currently lives in the mountains of Virginia with her husband, two daughters, and Mikko.

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  1. Thank you so much for taking time to bring to our attention another great read. I enjoy these tours and finding out about many terrific books.