Courage in Occupied France: A Story of the French Who Won't Give In

REPRISAL. By Ethel Vance. Little, Brown & Company. $2.50
ETHEL VANCE has written another exciting and absorbing novel of enslaved Europe; and it is a better book than Escape.
The scene of Reprisal is Occupied France; the hard knot of its event catches its threads together in the killing of a German soldier and the threatened execution of twenty hostages; the novel’s suspense centers in the family of a one-time publicist who for a while had held a portfolio in the Vichy government. André Galle has left Vichy now, revolted by the realities of collaboration (“I saw that we were going to surrender what no man has a right to surrender”), yet marked still by his Breton neighbors as one who has been “a friend of theirs.” His sensitive, informed, keenly intelligent daughter Françoise meets every challenge of the family’s complications—and the daily hardship and humiliation of conquest — as best she can. But her task is difficult. Almost hour by hour, suspicion tightens around her eighteen-year-old brother Blaise. And apprehension mounts over the promised help of their old friend who is now Vichy’s Ambassador to Paris.
This brief indication is perhaps enough to show that the crisis of Reprisal is moral. It is perhaps enough, also, to hint that the book’s most telling literary achievement is in its portrait of a traitor. This is a man who is a traitor because he is a politician; a self-seeking manipulator when he ought to be a patriot, and a “realist” (as he would doubtless say) when he ought to accept the direction of what Edouard Schneider scornfully calls “the Absolute.” And because the novel is disturbing — because its confrontations and conflicts are not only of France and its Lavals but of every one of us — this book reaches far beyond Ethel Vance’s other fine story to a place of austere though subtle meaning.

Real people in a nightmare

It is no less engrossing as a story for that. And its directness and clarity of narrative are flawless, whether in the delicate and astute overtones of Frangoise’s interrupted love story, or in the incident’s suspense. As in Escape, Ethel Vance (Grace Zaring Stone has wisely kept the pen-name for this book) has the spirit and skill to embody significant detail in unlabored, concrete, lively storytelling. We meet Françoise making difficult everyday visits in the town (evidently Quimper), and from the tradespeople’s angry or frightened talk we learn that something terrible has happened, that “Monsieur le Ministre” is being called upon for support, and that the rich and powerful envoy between beaten France and its conqueror used to be well known as the former Minister’s poor secretary. Before the novel offers the first in the series of flashbacks which throw their sad and searing light on the progress of defeat we learn, too, that André Galle has always been an idealistic pacifist, and that he is worried over his son’s secretiveness and rebellion and the influence of the gruff house-servant Maurice, whose possibilities for violence he knows. We learn a little, also, about Françoise’s suddenly frosted romance with the American painter — and ambulance driver — Simon Astley. Then Edouard Schneider comes, in answer to his old friend’s plea, to discuss the problem of the hostages.
This may be the best place to point out that the plot of Reprisal, exciting as it is, is neither so tenseen its course nor so dramatic in its climax as that of Escape. On the other hand, its events seem almost rooted in familiar association. Every incident finds some suggestion of counterpart in the daily papers.
And so might Edouard. Unlike André Galle, who is worn by the effort to understand his fellows and tortured by awareness of compromise, Edouard Schneider is quite simple: he is always practical; he knows what he wants; he seeks no comprehension of others beyond the minimum necessary for handling them — and for that, as for the deals which further his ambition, he has a true gift.
This portrayal has its foil in the very human visionary, André Galle. It has a wider scope, too, in Simon Astley’s discovery, from America, that “the enemy” is “in us,” and can be conquered only by complete dedication. Meanwhile the story of the murder and the hostages, and Françoise’s romance with it, have been worked out to their place in the larger war. Reprisal is the expression of profound understanding, written with skill and beauty, in compassion and scorn and truth. It is a book to hold our attention, and to provoke in all of us the realization which has come to the French too late.