“Could there be communities that were somehow resistant to violence, persistent in decency?” That question, which drives Maggie Paxson’s one-of-a-kind book, sounds wishful, especially these days. But who doesn’t yearn for an answer?
If ever a place could claim to be an incubator of rare goodness, Paxson seems to have found it: a small plateau in south-central France called Vivarais-Lignon, where a long tradition of extraordinary kindness to strangers peaked during the Nazi occupation. Town and rural folks risked their lives giving refuge to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, many of them Jewish and most of them young. Group homes for children, who arrived from all over Europe, sprang up. A forebear of hers, Paxson discovered, took charge of one in the fall of 1942. Daniel Trocmé, still a restless soul at 30, seized the chance “not because it’s an adventure,” he wrote to his parents, “but so that I would not be ashamed of myself.”
An anthropologist by training, Paxson hoped that fieldwork among the many rescuers’ descendants might help reveal how a group ethos of “uncommon decency” thrives. But her social-science quest propelled her onto fraught, personal terrain. Trocmé’s moral odyssey roiled and inspired her. So did a growing need not to analyze, but to engage her “very own soul,” as she does with asylum seekers who now find refuge in the area. The result is a lyrical book, by turns ungainly and graceful, dark and uplifting—right in step with the struggle “to be good when it’s hard to be good.”