Several years ago, after our children had left home, my husband and I decided to stop dreaming about planting a lavender field in France and to actually do it! So, in 2016 we planted a lavender field in Charente, and in April 2018 we’d sold our house in Nottingham and crossed the Channel with our two spaniels. Alongside making lavender soaps and candles, I was looking forward to writing in France; sitting in the sun wearing a fetching beret with a string of onions around my neck with my dogs at my side. However, we arrived to cold rain, a sick dog and little time for writing. (Thankfully I’d seen sense about the beret and onions!)
The summer of 2018 was very hard work. We have a large area of wild plants where we discovered a rabbit warren. Rabbits love eating lavender but as animal lovers we didn’t want to disturb their burrows, so we paid to have a very long rabbit proof fence built around our rows of lavender. After Watership Down came The Day Of The Triffids! Weeds thrived more than the lavender. It was back-breaking work but we kept on top of things.
What I hadn’t imagined would happen with my love of France, was that I’d be compelled to change writing genres from contemporary fiction to historical fiction. My inspiration for writing Arlette’s Story happened while visiting the martyred town of Oradour-sur-Glane. Before 1944, Oradour had schools, hotels, a hairdresser, a baker, a butcher, a doctor’s surgery and cafés. It even had a tram system that carried townspeople to nearby Limoges. I list these things to clarify the scale of the town. This wasn’t a small hamlet; it was a thriving community.
As human beings we are capable of wondrous achievements and extraordinary kindness. The vast majority of us possess a conscience – a voice inside each of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. Occasionally however, some people perpetrate such violence that it leaves the rest of us breathless, incapable of comprehending why or how. One of these occasions took place on a sunny afternoon on 10th June 1944 when 200 Nazis drove into Oradour. Six hundred and forty-two people were killed. The town was looted and set alight. Only six people survived.
In a very small way, I felt compelled to help keep the memory alive. I was desperate to tell the story from a survivor’s viewpoint. I had to create a protagonist to lead her through her family’s war years, so I chose a twenty-year-old farm girl, named Arlette. I wanted her to be just an ordinary girl from a hardworking family because I was going to put many obstacles in her way and test her courage.
I felt a huge weight of responsibility in writing about fictional characters living through a real atrocity. I wanted to honour the villagers' last hours with respect and honesty, choose the right words and not glamourize this horrendous crime.
Arlette’s Story isn’t solely a story about war. For years Arlette feels its reverberations but she also builds friendships, laughs, falls in love, enjoys family life, experiences adventures and lives her life positively despite challenges placed in her way. That is until the day she helps her grandmother into the family’s horse and trap and takes her back to Oradour-sur-Glane … but surely there’s life after war?
Arlette's Story, a beautifully-written, emotional debut and a reminder of the cruelty of the Nazi occupation in France, is out in paperback and audio book now, and is available from all good book shops and online retailers. Further information can be found on publisher, Ruby Fiction's, website www.rubyfiction.com
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