Cather­ine’s War

Julia Bil­let, Claire Fau­v­el (illus­tra­tor), Ivan­ka Hah­nen­berg­er (trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – March 29, 2021

In this inven­tive graph­ic nov­el set in France dur­ing World War II, young Rachel Cohen is forced to devel­op decep­tive strate­gies in order to sur­vive the Nazi regime. Assum­ing a new iden­ti­ty as a Chris­t­ian, she becomes Cather­ine Col­in; how­ev­er, she man­ages to pre­serve her authen­tic self — a pho­tog­ra­ph­er intent upon record­ing the dan­ger­ous and inspir­ing world around her. Through the lens of her pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to this process, she saves both her Jew­ish self and pieces of his­to­ry threat­ened with destruc­tion. Based par­tial­ly on the expe­ri­ence of Billet’s moth­er, this chron­i­cle of resilience paints young read­ers a vivid pic­ture of a har­row­ing time. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as a nov­el with­out illus­tra­tions, this new graph­ic ver­sion of Catherine’s sto­ry is enhanced by the pow­er­ful ele­ment of Fauvel’s expres­sive pictures.

The book begins at the Sèvres Children’s Home, an edu­ca­tion­al­ly pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tion not far from Paris. Rachel is ter­ri­fied for her miss­ing par­ents, but after the head­mistress’ hus­band gen­er­ous­ly gives her a Rollei­flex cam­era, she finds a new source of courage: I bury my anger and focus on the pic­tures.” Scenes in the dark­room are bathed in a mag­i­cal red, set­ting them apart from the dom­i­nant blue and gray of oth­er sequences. Tak­ing pic­tures forces Rachel to define the peo­ple and events around her, but also her own inte­ri­or being. As the Nazis and their French col­lab­o­ra­tors turned every Jew into an ene­my, she med­i­tates on what it means that I’m Jew­ish, but I nev­er real­ly believed in God.” At the same time, her artis­tic gift and its mean­ing become clear­er to her as she dis­cov­ers an almost spir­i­tu­al com­po­nent. Excit­ed at hav­ing final­ly com­posed the per­fect shot” of a pho­to­graph, she con­cedes the mys­te­ri­ous com­po­nent of this tri­umph: Unless it’s the shot that found me.” Through­out the nov­el, Billet’s con­cise and under­stat­ed lan­guage works well with Fauvel’s images, enabling both author and illus­tra­tor to take risks in explor­ing dif­fi­cult emotions.

Rachel learns that she will have to leave Sèvres to find refuge in a con­vent, where she will become a kind of pho­to­graph­ic neg­a­tive of her­self as Cather­ine Col­in. Rachel is deeply dis­turbed at this loss, fear­ing that her par­ents will nev­er find her if I am no longer me.” Yet she finds the strength to trans­form every betray­al — eat­ing pork or con­fess­ing her sins to a priest — into a secret form of resis­tance. Fauvel’s depic­tion of faces is sub­tle; read­ers see a full range of human expe­ri­ence in Rachel’s sad­ly down­turned eyes dur­ing Catholic rit­u­als and in her look of deter­mi­na­tion as she par­tic­i­pates in Resis­tance activ­i­ties. In one shock­ing image which high­lights the com­mit­ment of the nuns pro­tect­ing these hid­den chil­dren, Cather­ine is slapped across the face by one of these brave women. Such an obvi­ous error would reveal Cather­ine as a Jew and only a harsh phys­i­cal reminder would pre­vent her from repeat­ing the mistake.

When the con­vent becomes unsafe, Cather­ine finds refuge with a farmer’s fam­i­ly. The con­stant ten­sion of gaug­ing who is a friend and who an ene­my per­vades her whole life. Pho­tog­ra­phy remains her way of impos­ing order on this chaot­ic world; she is able to grant mean­ing to peo­ple and events through ren­der­ing them as pho­to­graph­ic works of art. Cather­ine is also trans­formed from an inse­cure young girl to a men­tor, teach­ing and reas­sur­ing oth­er Jew­ish children.

Bil­let and Fau­v­el chron­i­cle her par­al­lel devel­op­ments as a woman and as an artist. After Paris is lib­er­at­ed, she returns to Sèvres. In a dra­mat­ic two-page spread, she works in the dark­room where her orig­i­nal ini­ti­a­tion into pho­tog­ra­phy began, pro­duc­ing a col­lage of black and white pho­tos; the pho­tographs are a stun­ning and per­ma­nent record of Catherine’s sur­vival and of her matu­ri­ty as an artist. This remark­able graph­ic nov­el, about one Jew­ish woman’s jour­ney toward self-def­i­n­i­tion, is as sharply com­posed as the snap­shots she takes with her Rolleiflex.

Catherine’s War is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes a map, pho­tographs, A Note to the Read­er,” and excel­lent back­ground mate­r­i­al in the for­mat of ques­tions and answers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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