Vil­lage of Scoundrels

  • Review
By – October 28, 2020

In the his­to­ry of resis­tance to Nazi ter­ror, one region of France played a sig­nif­i­cant part. His­to­ri­ans have debat­ed why so many res­i­dents of Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon — a vil­lage under the Vichy col­lab­o­ra­tionist gov­ern­ment in the south of the coun­try — refused to coop­er­ate with Ger­man oppres­sion. Mar­gi Preus’s new mid­dle-grade nov­el is a swift­ly paced and engross­ing sto­ry with unfor­get­table char­ac­ters forced to make deci­sions under extreme cir­cum­stances. Read­ers will learn that heroes do not always act fear­less­ly, but rather find strength in coop­er­a­tion with oth­ers who share both their own con­vic­tions and moments of doubt. Vil­lage of Scoundrels is a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed his­tor­i­cal nov­el whose vision emerges nat­u­ral­ly from its narrative.

Many of the res­i­dents of the town — giv­en the fic­tion­al name of Les Lauzes — are reli­gious Protes­tants, descen­dants of the Huguenots who expe­ri­enced per­se­cu­tion in their country’s past. The cler­gy deliv­er their parish­ioners the mes­sage that all humans, includ­ing Jews, deserve the same respect, and that pres­sure by Vichy to betray their neigh­bors should be coun­tered by a com­mit­ment to pro­tect them. Chap­ters alter­nate between the per­spec­tives of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters: young Jew­ish refugees, Chris­t­ian teens com­mit­ted to aid­ing the Resis­tance, pro­tec­tive adults who pro­vide refuge and encour­age­ment. Each per­son has a unique his­to­ry. Philippe, a high school stu­dent who risks his life guid­ing Jews to the Swiss bor­der, has left an abu­sive father who den­i­grat­ed his son’s abil­i­ty to suc­ceed at any­thing. Hen­ni is a Jew­ish girl who escaped a con­cen­tra­tion camp but was forced to leave her moth­er behind. Jean-Paul Filon is a young Jew­ish man skilled at forg­ing doc­u­ments. Preus reveals how cen­tral the pro­duc­tion of these papers was to sav­ing lives by the care­ful con­struc­tion of false­hoods, requir­ing a rever­sal of accept­ed moral stan­dards. Jean-Paul remarks with sur­prise when anoth­er teen presents him with exten­sive equip­ment for his job, “‘Are you telling me…that the teach­ers are forg­ing doc­u­ments?’ Had he stum­bled into a den of crim­i­nals or some kind of forgery utopia?”

The char­ac­ter of Offi­cer Per­dant, a French police inspec­tor who will­ing­ly imple­ments Nazi poli­cies, is a cru­cial coun­ter­point to the res­i­dents of Les Lauzes. Although he inter­mit­tent­ly ques­tions his own motives, he is always able to jus­ti­fy the eas­i­er path of col­lab­o­ra­tion with evil. Self-reflec­tion alone is not a guar­an­tee of courage. Perdant’s weak­ness is con­temptible in the con­text of his envi­ron­ment, but the author resists por­tray­ing him as a car­i­ca­ture, instead offer­ing exam­ples of how eas­i­ly fear and prej­u­dice can com­bine to pro­duce dead­ly results.

Plot, lan­guage, and char­ac­ter work seam­less­ly togeth­er to dri­ve the nar­ra­tive. Each sec­tion of the book is pre­ced­ed by a chap­ter title, a date, and a sim­ple but dra­mat­ic black and white pic­ture by S.M. Vidau­r­ri, lend­ing a cin­e­mat­ic effect. Titles empha­size the tumul­tuous times and are often iron­ic, as in Christ­mas Mag­ic – Decem­ber 25, 1942,” which refers to the town’s pas­tor con­vert­ing his Christ­mas ser­mon into an anti-Nazi speech. There is no sense of inevitabil­i­ty as unpre­dictable events unfold, demand­ing chang­ing respons­es. Jean-Paul’s warn­ing to his friend, Léon, under­scores the ter­ri­ble process by which free­dom is grad­u­al­ly erod­ed under author­i­tar­i­an­ism: The Nazis and their pup­pet gov­ern­ment in Vichy take away rights and make new restric­tions lit­tle by lit­tle, so you can’t keep ahead of them. There are always new cri­te­ria for arrest­ing peo­ple.” The sim­plic­i­ty of Jean-Paul’s warn­ing sum­ma­rizes the core of this excep­tion­al sto­ry, as imper­fect human beings find the abil­i­ty to con­front the unthink­able with brav­ery and grace.

Vil­lage of Scoundrels is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an out­stand­ing Epi­logue,” which explains thor­ough­ly the novel’s his­tor­i­cal back­ground and the mod­els for its char­ac­ters. It also includes pho­tographs, lists of addi­tion­al resources, and a timeline.

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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