Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Catherine's War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel

**Contains Spoilers**
It's 1942 and Rachel Cohen, a Jewish teen, has been enrolled in the progressive Sèvres Children's Home just outside Paris for four months. It's also been months since she heard anything from her parents and has no idea where they are or what may have happened to them. Luckily, she loves being part of Sèvres, and is convinced that the kind husband and wife who run it, Penguin and Seagull, are part of the French resistance. Thanks to Penguin, Rachel has found an interest in and has a talent for taking photographs and he has lent her a Rolleiflex camera, and has even taught her how to develop the photos she takes.

But as the Nazi stronghold in France tighteneds, and Jews are required to wear yellow stars, the heads of  Sèvres refuse to force that on their Jewish students. Instead, the students are asked to change their names to ones that are more Christian sounding and are given false identity papers. Rachel becomes Catherine Colin.

But when the Nazis begin rounding up Jews, it becomes clear that Sèvres is no longer safe for its Jewish students, even with false papers, and plans are made for the students to be spread around France for their safety. Catherine alias Rachel is sent to a convent in Riom with a younger student named Alice, but not before she is gifted the school's precious Rolleiflex camera by Seagull, who tells her to take photos of everything she sees as testimony after the war.

In Riom, Catherine is forced to eat pork, take catechism classes and communion in order to keep her cover. Taking photos proves to be the thing that helps her through. Then, in town to get her photos developed, she meets Étienne, who lets her use his darkroom. Catherine and Étienne are strongly attracted to each other, but when the convent is reported to the Nazis, it is time for Catherine and Alice to move on.

Over the course of the Nazi occupation of France, Catherine and Alice are sent to a small farm in Limoges, then an orphanage in the Pyrenees, where she and Alice go their separate ways, and finally to another small farm. But when France is finally liberated by the Allies, Catherine returns to Paris, where she hopes to find her parents. Instead she finds their apartment trashed and no information about what happened to them. But she is able to reconnect with Seagull, Penguin, and Alice. In 1945, she is finally able to become Rachel Cohen again. Rachel now finds there is a great deal of interest in the photographs she had taken all through her travels during the Nazi occupation and is offered a show in an art gallery. And finally, she and Étienne also reconnect, and yes, they eventually marry and move to the United States.

Catherine's War is based on the real life experiences of the author's mother as a Jewish teen in France during WWII. It is a powerful coming of age story that interrogates questions of identity during a time of crisis, when who one is was all that the Nazis needed to arrest and send you away, often never to be heard from again, like Rachel's parents.

This is one of the best graphic novels I've read in a while. The story's text is clear, straightforward, and succinct, thanks to the excellent translation from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Text and panels harmonize completely, making Rachel's story easy to follow despite so many characters and places. In her ink and watercolor panels, artist Claire Fauvel captures the differing emotions of the characters - fear, anger, happiness, loneliness, kindness - remarkably well, so that nothing is missed and there is no ambiguity. She used a palette of subtle dark grays, blues, and browns, which touches of brighter colors throughout. These dark colors reflect the dark times in which the story takes place.

When I was in college and living in the East Village in the early 1980s, I used to have an old Minolta SRT 101, that I absolutely adored. I also had a pen and ink drawing of it with the words "It's All in the Focus" written in the lens that a friend made for me. I learned a lot about life through my camera's lens, especially when the Aids crisis hit the village so hard then. For me, there is no question as to the power of art to bear witness and convey truth. I think this idea is brought to bear in an important conversation between Rachel and Étienne. He prefers portrait and landscapes while Rachel prefers more candid, in-the-moment daily life shots. The question becomes whose camera tells the greatest truth or do they both, but in different ways? Something to think about.

Back matter includes a map of Rachel's travels between 1942 and 1945, as well as some of the real photos taken by the author's mother, Tamo Cohen. There are also four pages of questions from readers with the author's answers.

Catherine's War is a story, as Julia Billet writes, "that reminds us that even when the wolves are howling death at your door, there are women and men who are still faithful to mankind." So, while this could be classified as a Holocaust story, it is also a resistance/survivor story. Either way, it is a graphic novel not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading about this book, Alex, and about your own connection via your camera, too. I wonder at Catherine's ability to take photos with her camera in such a frightening time. People who fought back and helped are heroes to me. Thanks for the review; I'll put this on my list!