The Plateau

  • Review
By – December 30, 2019

Those famil­iar with the his­to­ry of the Shoah have prob­a­bly heard of the vil­lage of Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon, on the French Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. Its inhab­i­tants stood up to the Nazis and to French col­lab­o­ra­tion, not by tak­ing up arms, but by open­ing their arms to those in need, help­ing to shel­ter and save thou­sands, most­ly Jews and chil­dren, from depor­ta­tion and death. The sto­ries of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in this aston­ish­ing act of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance have been record­ed and rec­og­nized over the years. The vil­lagers on the plateau have been hon­ored by Yad Vashem as Right­eous among the nations,” an hon­or also bestowed upon Pas­tor André Trocmé, his wife, Mag­da, and their nephew, Daniel, who helped to lead this unique effort. Their sto­ries are known, but as we face the chal­lenges of our own era, it seems increas­ing­ly urgent to know more. How to keep light alive in dark times? How to deci­pher the lessons in love and sol­i­dar­i­ty, hope and endurance con­tained in the his­to­ry of this extra­or­di­nary place? That is where Mag­gie Pax­son comes in, with a pow­er­ful and engag­ing­ly writ­ten explo­ration of these themes, as they wind through the his­to­ry of Daniel Trocmé, the com­mu­ni­ty in which he worked, and her own life.

In The Plateau, Pax­son, an anthro­pol­o­gist, emerges from years of writ­ing and field­work in areas scarred by vio­lence, strife, and war with what seems to be a decep­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion: Were there com­mu­ni­ties out there that were good at being good when things got bad? I didn’t know exact­ly what I was on to, but I knew I want­ed to study it. In short­hand, I called it peace.” As it hap­pened, her own fam­i­ly his­to­ry offered her a place to begin to seek out an answer in the vil­lages of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, for she is relat­ed to Daniel Trocmé. What, she won­dered, led her ances­tor and these vil­lagers to shel­ter refugees dur­ing World War II, and what leads them to con­tin­ue doing so today?

Pax­son cre­ates imme­di­ate sus­pense with her live­ly nar­ra­tive style, which weaves togeth­er the per­son­al, his­tor­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al, and ana­lyt­i­cal while explor­ing the mount­ing pres­sures of xeno­pho­bia, intol­er­ance, and envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion that char­ac­ter­ize our own time. She draws the read­er upward on a jour­ney to the Plateau, wind­ing through past and present in a line of inquiry that is by turns exhil­a­rat­ing and ter­ri­bly sad. The strength of her work lies in its refresh­ing blend of sci­en­tif­ic rig­or and open­ness to the intri­ca­cies and mys­ter­ies of the human heart. She – and the read­er – may become bogged down by the seem­ing­ly unsolv­able puz­zle of why and how cir­cum­stances and peo­ple can be so wrong, and the harsh facts of the human con­di­tion. But, even in these moments, Pax­son opens the door to vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, faith, love, and beau­ty, remind­ing us that they real­ly will always draw us toward the light.

Miran­da Rich­mond Mouil­lot is the author of A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France. Her most recent trans­la­tion is of The Kites, the last and great­est nov­el of French author and Resis­tance hero Romain Gary.

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