Thirteen-year-old Genevieve (Gen) Michel is an American visiting her grandmother Meme for the summer of 1939. Meme lives on the farm Gen's father Gerard grew up on in Alsace, France only five miles from the German border. Gen's older brother, Andre has also been visiting for the summer, working in the village bistro. Andre has been in France the previous two summers, first in Strasbourg and Colmar, then in Basel working in restaurants as a cook. He's returned to America two weeks ago to begin college where he will study business and eventually open his own restaurant.
Now it is Gen's turn to travel home to America where she will live with Cousin Ellen in Flushing until Christmas. Aunt Marie who is like a mother to her is teaching in the far north of Canada as part of her preparation for a book she is writing. Gen has lived with Aunt Marie in Springfield Gardens for as long as she can remember. Her parents died in a train crash when she was very young. Gen has mixed feelings about returning to America. She doesn't want to stay with Meme, who complains about everything. But her friend Remy, tall with blue eyes and curly hair and her new friend Katrin Moeller on the nearby farm were the best part of the summer. Remy wants to farm some day, rather than take over his family's pharmacy.
Before Andre had left, he told Gen that war was coming to France, that the Germans intend to take back Alsace and invade Europe. Gen would leave just in time, taking a ship back to America. For her it couldn't come soon enough after a summer of Meme's gruff and stern ways, but Andre had felt bad about leaving Meme. The day for Gen to leave has arrived. She won't miss pulling cabbages or digging the potatoes, but she will miss Louis shepherd dog who is Meme's watchdog and the cow Andre named Elsie. When they climb into the cart, Gen notices Meme is in pain, dragging her left foot which seems to be bleeding. In the village Gen asks Meme to stop so she can say goodbye to Madame Jacques at the patisserie. Meme drops her at the train station where she meets up with Madame Thierry who will accompany her home to America. But when the train arrives, Gen cannot make herself board. Instead she turns around and walks back to the farm. On the way she hides her heavy suitcase and books in a wooded area to pick up the next day.
Her reappearance at the farm does not please Meme whom she finds laying on the bench by the hearth, her ankle bound. She considers Gen head-strong and impulsive, having wasted her Aunt Marie's money spent on her ticket. However, Remy is surprised and Katrin happy that Gen has not left. Even worse when Gen goes to retrieve her suitcase and books she finds they are gone, leaving her with no clothing. Meme gives Gen a few clothes and her father's old school notebook. Gen begins to settle into life on the farm, milking the cow and hanging herbs in the kitchen. Then one day, war arrives with the invasion of the Nazis. School does not begin as Monsieur Henri and some of the other teachers are in the army.
In December 1939, Gen receives a tearstained letter from Aunt Marie admonishing her for staying and fearing for her safety. Gen is homesick but Meme helps by bringing out some of the family traditions; a wooden shoe left out for Christmas, and the cutting of a Christmas tree which Gen manages to accomplish. There is goose, green beans and tart.
Following the holidays, school begins but there are soon many disturbing changes. In June, Paris falls and the war is over for France. The Germans begin deporting French Jews and those who fought against them in the Great War. At the end of the summer of 1940, Gen helps Meme harvest the many vegetables; the carrots, potatoes, cabbage and squash as well has canning the vegetables and making jam. On the first day of school they lose their pig to the Germans. When Katrin comes to walk with Gen, she tells her that they are hiding their food from the Germans. At school, students are stunned to discover they are no longer allowed to speak French, their names and street names are Germanized and even wedding rings must be changed to the right hand as is the German custom. All radios must be turned in and books not written in German are to be burned. However, the Germans arrive in the village and their presence brings fear to everyone. The history teacher, Monsieur Henri is replaced by the strict Herr Albert. The classroom's French flag is taken down and replaced by the Nazi flag.
Things begin to get worse as time passes. Gen helps Meme hide half of their food stores in a secret pantry behind the armoire and she is made to promise not to tell anyone. "You'll see," Meme said, 'There are those who are French, and others who are German sympathizers.' " In November they lose their horse Sister and the cart to the German army and a Nazi officer named Furst also begins living with them, taking Meme's bedroom. However, Gen disobeys Meme and tells Katrin everything.
The bombing of the railroad by the French Resistance to stop the Germans from deporting people angers the Germans. Remy is injured, his father is arrested, and his mother and sister forced to escape to neutral Switzerland. As Genevieve is drawn more and more into the Resistance she must learn to show discretion and take responsibility for her actions.
Genevieve's War is a coming of age story set in occupied France during World War II. Gen is only thirteen when the war begins in 1939. She's innocent and trusting, not realizing that in Alsace some French citizens will collaborate with the Germans.
Meme warns Gen repeatedly not to tell anyone about their food stores, about the secret attic where they eventually hide Remy. "We can't trust anyone. Tell no one Genevieve." and later "You'll see," Meme said. "There are those who are French, and others who are German sympathizers." But Gen believes that it will be fine to tell Katrin because she's her friend. Instead of listening to Meme Gen tells Katrin everything - "By the time we saw the school, I'd told her everything I could think of: the attic room, the painting, Louis. I wondered what Meme would say if she knew. But she wouldn't know. Katrin would keep our secret, I was sure of it." At this point, Gen is very naive and doesn't understand that she might be endangering the lives of others. It isn't until her secret about Remy hiding at Meme's house is revealed and the Nazi's come looking for Remy, that Genevieve begins to understand that this time of war calls for discretion and courage, that she might be responsible for the safety and the lives of those she is helping.
Besides chronicling the war, Genevieve's War also portrays the change in Gen's relationship with her grandmother. At the beginning of the novel it's evident they do not get along. Meme believes Gen is headstrong and impulsive. Likewise Gen has a poor opinion of her grandmother. When she finds an old photograph of Meme with the word Miel written on the back Gen thinks "How pretty she'd been, young and smiling a little. How different from the sour old woman she was now. I turned the picture over. Miel was written on the back. Honey! More like vinegar, if you asked me." Gen believes Meme will be happy when she leaves for home in America. When she decides to stay in France, Gen is not welcomed back. " 'You've missed the train, the ship. Headlong! Do you ever think?'...'A disruption in my life,' I thought I heard her whisper."
Their relationship begins to change when Remy's life is in danger after the bombing of the railway tracks. Gen begins to see the good in her grandmother and Meme comes to see that Gen has some redeemable qualities. Gen displays quick thinking when she is questioned by Furst about where she's been. This earns praise from Meme who tells her "You never cease to surprise me, Genevieve." Later on Gen becomes angry at Furst for criticizing Meme, telling him she thinks Meme is wonderful. Gen overhears Meme tell Furst she "couldn't get along without her during this terrible time...Her father would have been proud of her." Gen realizes she is beginning to love Meme.
However Gen disobeys Meme and tells Katrin about Remy hiding in their home leading the Nazis come to search for him. Fortunately, Remy is able to escape but the kindly woodcutter who is part of the French Resistance is not so lucky. Gen is devastated at her role in this and confesses to Meme the possibility that she might be responsible for what happened to him. However, Meme understands telling Gen how her father experienced the same thing and that in war, people do what they can. Gen realizes that in this war Meme "...had taken in a girl who was forgetful and messy, who hadn't loved her. She must have known what I was thinking. 'A girl who changed my life,' she said, 'A girl who looked like me when I was young, who acted like the son I loved.' " In the end Meme tells Genevieve, "You have been a gift, Genevieve." She gives Gen her wedding ring hoping it will remind Gen of her grandfather, Victor and Meme. Gen too feels love for Meme. "It's the best gift I've ever had, Miel. I do love you."
Because Genevieve's War is written for 9 to 12 year olds, many of the more terrible aspects of the occupation of France by the Nazis are only hinted at. For example, the deportation of French Jews is only mentioned once and the brutality of the Nazis is downplayed. However, readers are shown how the Nazis took whatever they wanted; animals, food, homes, and vehicles and how their presence creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in the village. Younger readers will also get a good understanding of just how dangerous the work of the French Resistance was and how it was difficult to know just who to trust. Anyone might be a collaborator or an informant. For example Gen first believes that their new teacher Herr Albert is a staunch Nazi and someone to be feared. However, it turns out that Herr Albert is working for the resistance. Likewise, Madame Jacques turns out to be a collaborator.
Genevieve's War is a good introduction to historical fiction for younger readers and offers them the opportunity to learn more about what life was like for a specific group of French during World War II. Reilly Giff gives her readers a map showing the location of the Alsace region of France in relation to Germany and Switzerland but does not identify the location of Meme's farm. The novel ends with the liberation of France and offers hope for the future. The title is a reference to Gen's brother's name for the restaurant he someday wants to open.
Overall, a good treatment of the impact of the German occupation of the Alsace region of France during World War II.
Genevieve's War by Patricia Reilly Giff
New York: Holiday House 2017