Well, a lot actually. Especially when it comes to book titles.
I’ve just finished the final edits and proofreading of my latest novel (not the one coming out Dec. 15th) and I find the title is completely wrong.
Initially I called the book (the first in a trilogy) “In one Night” because I was absolutely certain the event it refers back to would take place at night. Well, the muses thought differently. That particular event took place during the day, but many other events took place under cover of dark.
Dilemma: what to name the book? So much happened in the gathering storm of WWII in Strasbourg, France, and at night.
Brainstorming with trusted readers led the following different options:
- The Gathering Storm
- Out of Darkness
- Before the Dawn
- A Way Out
- The Tempest of War
- Torn Apart
- A Family at War
- Under Cover of Night
- Seeking Safe
Not sure yet which one to choose, but please feel free to let me know which one you like. I’ve included Chapter 1 below so you can get a feel for the book. (Don’t worry Jay, I won’t give any more of the book out)
Strasbourg, occupied France
The train sped through the gathering twilight. In the distance, lightning forked over the Vosges Mountains; a summer storm would break soon. The heat of the day was already blowing away as Thérèse rocked back and forth to the train’s rhythm, staring out at the darkening landscape and wondering what they might find. Her seventeenth birthday last week seemed a long time ago.
Mme Colliers, their housekeeper, had returned a month or so earlier. She had not been sent far, just to one of the small villages near the city, whereas the Detweiler family had been ordered to Bordeaux, to Uncle George’s goat farm. Well behind the Maginot line, to safety. But now they had been told to go back home.
A few days before they headed back they had received a long letter from Mme Colliers. She said things weren’t so bad under the occupation, or the ‘annexation’ as she referred to it. She told of how most of the pipes that had burst over the winter were now repaired, though when she’d first gotten back to the city she had to fetch water at the fountain twice a day. The chamomile stood waist-high in the streets, growing between the cobblestones, and feral cats roamed everywhere, left behind by their owners when they’d been told to evacuate.
The letter had been cheerful, carefree. Only toward the end did Mme Colliers add a warning to Professor Detweiler.
“Dear Professor, I urge you to simply follow orders given at the station. And remember to speak German now.”
What orders Thérèse could not imagine. Surely her father would not be expected to become a German soldier, would he? He was a well-respected economics professor, not a soldier. That last line had kept her up for most of last night. She worried. As the middle child she somehow had taken it upon her shoulders to assume responsibility for her family’s well being after her mother had died two years before.
“Papa?” Thérèse turned away from the window and looked at her father on the bench opposite her. Her little sister, Amélie, was curled up on his lap, asleep. “Papa, what will it really be like?”
Professor Detweiler sighed. He could still remember when Strasbourg and Alsace were returned to France in 1919. He’d only been a young student then, but he could still recall the acrimony expressed by many of his parents’ generation who wished to remain German. He forced a smile before answering in as reassuring a tone as possible, “I’m sure it won’t be all that bad. They got the water back on and the chamomile trimmed.”
Thérèse nodded and turned back to the window. She didn’t believe him. Only a few nights ago she had overheard her father arguing with Uncle George about returning. George had said the Germans could have it back as far as he was concerned and he couldn’t understand why Jacques Detweiler, professor of economics, who could have his pick of university positions all over Europe, would want to go back and live under an oppressive regime.
“You don’t know it will be oppressive and if I leave what sort of example does that set for my children, my fellow Alsatians?” Professor Detweiler had argued.
“What are you talking about, you fool? You’ve already lost your wife and now you’ll expose your children to these German … Well, you’ll expose them to danger. They’ll take one look at Sophia and want to marry her off to some German officer,” George had said.
“That’s absurd. Marshal Pétain has assured everyone that this is a peaceful handover and that he’s received guarantees that the citizens of Alsace will not be harmed.”
“Oh, how naive you are! After all those years at the university you still don’t know how the world works. You should take these children to London or Marseille at the very least. Or leave them with me!” With that uncle George had left the house, seeking solace in his pipe and with his goats.
What, truly, had been the point of leaving if they were expected to return anyway? Who cared if Marshal Pétain had urged Alsatians to go home and not make trouble? As the premier of the Vichy government he had ordered them to just go along with the situation. Thérèse didn’t think the French gave in to a foreign military that easily. It made no sense to her.
“You worry too much,” Bertrand, her oldest brother said, he’d been watching her and enjoyed pointing out that once again she took too dim a view of things. To him everything was an adventure.
He gently nudged her to see if he could get a smile out of her, but she ignored him and kept staring out of the window with a worried frown on her forehead.
The floodlit spire of Strasbourg Cathedral loomed up ahead like a beacon and Thérèse felt her heart quicken. She pushed back her long, dark, wavy hair and moved closer to the window. How she loved her city. Perhaps that was how Papa felt too and why he had decided to come back.
Through the open window she could smell the unique perfume of the city in summer; a faint scent of musk, mixed with dusty summer heat before rain. Like the pelt of an animal resting after a successful hunt. There was something of an old lion about the medieval city at the crossroads, her mother had always said. Some days Thérèse really missed her mother.
It was not raining yet when the train pulled into the station. Thérèse caught a brief look of concern on her father’s face, which he quickly hid behind a smile. He kissed the sleeping Amélie on her head and gently woke her up.
“Come along, my little ones,” he said, far too cheerfully.
“Papa …” Bertrand sighed.
“You will always be my little one, Bertrand, even when you’re old and gnarled like those trees in the Orangerie you’re so fond of climbing,” Papa teased him.
Amélie giggled and Thérèse couldn’t help smiling at the image of Bertrand with his wavy blond hair as a gnarled old tree.
It lightened the mood and for a moment Thérèse thought perhaps things might not be so bad after all. At least she’d be home with all the familiar things: the books in Papa’s study, the piano in the front room and the lilacs, linden and elderberry trees in the walled-in back garden. Marianne, her best friend, would be back, too, in the house across the street. She looked forward to afternoons reading or talking with Marianne in the shade of the trees. Yes, she thought, things would be all right.
“Thérèse, can you help me?” her older sister, Sophia, asked sweetly. “My leg hurts from the long journey and I can’t carry all my bundles.”
“I’ll help,”Claude offered. He was a year younger than Thérèse. Claude was the family peacemaker and very aware that Sophia would take any opportunity to be unpleasant to Thérèse. Why, he couldn’t tell, but his mother had once said that Sophia would grow out of her meanness. That was a few years ago and Sophia was nineteen now, so when would she grow out of it?
Thérèse was glad of Claude’s help; this way she could hold Amélie’s hand so Papa had his hands free to carry his suitcases.
Once off the train they were, for the first time, confronted with soldiers in grey woolen uniforms. There were so many of them. Where had they all come from? Just a few months ago Germany had marched into Alsace; surely they didn’t have that many soldiers stationed in Strasbourg? Did they?
The first strains of heavy German music could be heard coming from outside the station.
“Music, Papa?” Thérèse asked.
“It would seem so,” Professor Detweiler said.
“To indoctrinate us,” a young man standing in front of Thérèse said. He’d half turned around and almost whispered his answer.
The closer the crowd descending from the train came to the doors leading out of the station, the closer together everyone walked. It was as if the soldiers methodically moved in to create a tight knot of people, forcing them ever closer together. It made people visibly uncomfortable. Faces became flushed from the heat of bodies packed close together, eyes darted from side to side in near panic and small children needed to be picked up so they wouldn’t get crushed.
Thérèse had the impression that the number of soldiers had doubled since they’d stepped off the train. They stood so close together now that you could barely see between them, their gleaming rifles almost touching; all along the line every other one would urge calm and obedience in a loud, German voice.
“Pupett!” Amélie cried. “Papa, ma pupett!” the frightened little girl, squeezed against unknown legs, unable to see, cried out in panic. Somehow she’d become separated from her most prized possession, her doll.
“Papa!” she shrieked in panic, her voice echoing through the cavernous train station. Somewhere in the crowd another child started wailing, scared by Amélie’s distress.
“Here, Thérèse,” Professor Detweiler handed her one of his suitcases and with one arm scooped up the distraught little girl.
“There, there, little one,” he said soothingly, pressing her to him.
“Hey you, what do you think you’re doing? Shut that child up. Now!” one of the soldiers barked. A beefy, red-faced young man, no older than Thérèse, and clearly someone with no patience with children.
“Shhh, ma petite,” Papa said softly into Amélie’s ear.
“Do not speak French, mein Herr! This is now German land,” another barked order shot over the crowd.
Professor Detweiler hadn’t realized how his voice had carried. Everyone was now quiet, stunned by the order. Even the other child had quieted down. Why could he not soothe a frightened child in the only language she knew? It was absurd and the professor was getting ready to argue that point when a ripple of movement through the crowd caught his eye. Beside him Thérèse was all but holding her breath, her eyes wide in fear.
Quickly and quietly a doll was handed forward until it was in Bertrand’s hands and he handed it up to Amélie.
“Ah, merci, Bertrand,” the professor said without thinking of the language he was using. He was just immensely relieved the doll had been found and Amélie was happy again.
“I warn you, mein Herr. No more French!”
Professor Detweiler turned to face the young soldier, fully intending to give him a piece of his mind, but when he noticed the frightened faces around him and the raised weapons pointing in his direction, he understood he was no longer a man who could speak out in public. In that instant he understood how things would be from now on and the look on Thérèse’s face when he looked down at her, told him she knew too. So, instead of speaking, he merely nodded his head meekly. After another breathless moment of tension the rifles were finally lowered.
Thérèse had no doubt these young men would have shot her father, simply to make an example of him. It proved that the information she’d read in the letters a student smuggled out of Krakow, Poland, for a colleague of her father’s was all true.
Amélie was clutching her doll, secure in her father’s arms. But the fright was far from over for everyone else. To be told they could no longer speak French, not even to soothe a child, had stunned many in the group. Particularly those of the younger generation. A young mother clutching her baby had tears in her eyes.
A cold breeze blew into the station and a loud crack of thunder rattled the rafters. It made people hurry out of the building; though nobody wanted to be out on the square in a thunderstorm, they had no choice. The soldiers closed ranks behind them and herded them into what Thérèse could only refer to later as a holding pen. The frightened citizens were pushed toward a stage set up at the far end of the square. Outside the holding area, they could see the waiting buses that would take everyone home.
“Marshall Pétain said nothing about this,” a voice near the professor said in a whisper. It was the same young man who had spoken to Thérèse earlier.
“Silence!” several of the soldiers ordered as more and more murmurs of surprise and disgust rippled through the crowd. People were tired and weary after their travels and eager to get home, but they were held captive in the holding area. The stage filled with officials and the band played, until a medal-bedecked officer stood and signaled for the band to stop.
As the man moved forward to the microphone, the first drops of rain came down. For a moment the scent of summer rain suffused the square, but soon the heavens opened up with another loud crack of thunder. The gathering, shivering in their thin summer clothes, huddled close and waited.
“I am Herr Robert Wagner, leader, your Gauleiter of all Alsace-Lorraine, the new Gau. I will be instructing you in the plans of our Führer. You are now once again citizens of the glorious German Reich. From now on you will salute, like so.” The man paused to make the Nazi salute and waited for the crowd to copy him.
“You there!” a soldier barked at the professor. “Sieg heil!” he ordered. “You must.”
“I cannot. If I do, I shall drop my child,” Professor Detweiler said, in French, clutching Amélie who burrowed against his chest to try and stay dry.
Reluctantly the professor repeated what he had said in German.
On stage Herr Wagner began a long-winded explanation of the coming glories, of the new rules and decrees for the city and the region now that it was finally back where it belonged with the German fatherland.
The rain came down in a steady stream and a lowly soldier stood on the stage holding a large umbrella over the speaker and the microphone which amplified the bombastic voice as it droned on, ever louder to be heard over the weather.
“We will now all joyfully return to the German ways. We will do away with all public displays of offensive and decadent French propaganda. Stores will carry only German products as we return the city to German glory. A pearl in its crown.
“From now on you will all speak German. You will be punished if we catch you speaking French.” He tried to sound like a kindly school teacher as he waggled his finger at the crowd as if giving a warning to mischievous children.
“Schools will now teach only in German. Children, you will all receive beautiful new textbooks,” he went on. “We will bring you new teachers. You won’t have to listen to the lies of your French teachers anymore.” The voice droned on as the crowd stood shivering, waiting for the time they could go home. This was not what they had expected.
“Papa?” Thérèse said, leaning against her father’s tall frame. She was scared and the realization was sinking in that this was not something her father could make go away with just a few words of comfort. He could not go up to Herr Wagner and argue with him. He would have to accept the new status quo along with everyone else.
The professor managed to shift Amélie after putting down his suitcase, and with his free arm, he embraced Thérèse and pulled her close. This was not what he had wanted for her, or any of his children, and he regretted his impulsive decision to return. It was always like that when arguing with his brother, George. He would do the opposite of what George suggested.
“We’ll be home soon. Mme Colliers will have something hot to warm us up and take the bad taste out of our mouths,” he whispered in French.
He noticed the young soldier watching him, glaring at him to make sure he complied with the new rules. The soldier, just a boy, seemed very eager to pull the trigger on his shiny new rifle. It was unsettling, especially now that it was made clear that his two sons would be expected to show up for military training without delay. They were to be trained as German soldiers and expected to go where the German army sent them.
Perhaps he could find a way to get a dispensation for Bertrand so that he could continue his medical studies, but what about Claude? He would be sixteen in only two short months and there was no reason the professor could think of that might keep him out of the German army.
After what felt like an eternity the list of rules was done. Herr Wagner thanked the crowd for their loyalty and promised glorious times ahead. They were finally allowed to leave. Though it soon became clear not everyone would be going home. There were more lists with names of who would go where. A number of families were sent to the villages in the country, or back out to Vichy France.
Not since Napoleonic times had Strasbourg seen such an efficient and detailed bureaucracy. But which criteria were applied to determine who went where? No information was given. The professor overheard someone asking why they were being sent back to the country to live with a dreaded uncle, and was dismayed by the answer: “You are not to question the wisdom of the Führer.”
To move things along smoothly the band now played a selection of German folk songs. Many were well known in the Alsace region as they far predated any kind of empire. Some were centuries old. Thérèse didn’t like them. Sophia, on the other hand, would have gladly broken into song. She loved nothing so much as singing, especially before an audience. She did have one of the clearest sopranos, but her clubfoot, a common problem in the region, would keep her off the world stages. At least that is what her mother had decided and had told her from early on.
The professor still remembered the tears, but his wife had explained to him the necessity of that lie. Given Sophia’s love of adulation and praise, along with her beauty, the world stage would have turned her into a monster. She already used her siblings as it suited her and none, except Thérèse, stood up to her.
Thérèse looked around as they stood in line to leave. From the shop window of the pharmacy across the square she caught the pharmacist’s daughter watching. She had seen the girl at her school, a shy, petite girl who often helped behind the counter after school. Now the girl spied on the proceedings from behind a poster welcoming the Germans.
What was happening to her city, Thérèse wondered? Had the pharmacist put up the poster because he was glad the Germans were here or had he been ordered to put it up?
Thérèse knew what she would write in her diary that night.