‘The Award’ by author Danielle Steel was published by Delacorte Press in 2016. COURTESY PHOTO

The Award
By Danielle Steel
Published by Delacorte Press 2016
Pages 319 Price $28.99

Danielle Steel writes with an easy flow of language and a compelling plot. She has written over sixty books. Her focus is on romance, courage, mystery, and conflicts inside the human condition. Steel’s plot in her book “The Award,” deals with the German occupation of France in 1940 through 1945. It has an unusual twist which will shock readers, move humanitarians,  inspire art lovers, and respect French patriotism.

The fictitious story opens in Paris, France, during contemporary times and focuses on a search by Delphine Lanbert, a woman journalist, for her grandmother’s name, Gaelle de Barbet, in a list of awards in the newspaper. The list is for the recipients of the Legion d’Honneur, the most distinguished award in France.

Gaelle de Barbet at 95 never expected to be decorated but the entire family including her granddaughter Delphine (who sought the award for her grandmother) was very proud of Gaelle who was 16 when Germany invaded France.

At age 95 Gaelle’s memory is clear as a priceless polished diamond and her up- to- date evaluation of current affairs in France sparkles with insight. She is an alert, independent early riser, and always walks by herself several blocks from her home to a friend’s apartment for tea and an early breakfast. The book is a flashback of Gaelle de Barbet’s memories of World War II.

The de Barbet chateau was taken over by German officers for  their headquarters in Lyon in 1940. Gaelle’s father, a member of the French resistance, was shot and her brother was killed. Gaelle’s family was Catholic but she had grown up friends with a Jewish family, and went to school with their daughter Rebekah every day. Rebekah and her family were sent to a fenced- in  waiting station, ready to be sent to a concentration camp and Gaelle visits ever day with food and warm clothes.

Rebekah’s family is sent away to a concentration camp and Gaelle sees other families being rooted out of their homes as she rides her bike to school. One day she sees a little boy about three years old being pushed out a ground floor window as his family is rushed out of their home. Gaelle stops and picks up the boy in the basket of her bike and sees a sign pinned on him to bring him to a certain address. She does and the boy is taken right in and she is asked to help other Jewish children looking for a way to escape the Nazis. The residence is one of the French resistance locations. Gaelle agrees and secretly helps many Jewish children escape.

Although the Nazis killed her father and took over the family chateau, she still lives on the third floor of the estate, once reserved for the help, where she takes care of her sick mother.

One day after four years when the Germans were losing, the German commander of the group living in her home asks to see her. Gaelle is afraid he has found out about her activities with the underground. He states his troops will be soon be leaving and he understands her patriotism to France, her country. He loves art. He asks her, “How do you feel about your national treasures? The famous art works of France?” She hadn’t been in a museum since the invasion of France and French art works were the last thing on her mind but they were very much on his. He stated “Unlike my countrymen, I believe that the art of France belongs to France and not sent to Germany.” The commander asks Gaelle to help him save French art. Gaelle is stunned.The commander says, “I has a friend in Paris in a position of power in the SS and wishes to rescue what artifacts we can save and store them here.They could be returned after the war to museums and private collections.”

This is the most unusual twist of the novel because historically art was stolen and sent to Germany to build Hitler’s grand museum in Linz, as well as collected by Goering and other German officers who were art collectors.

Gaelle, now 19, says, “Are you asking me to steal them for you? I’d be shot.” The commander states,”I trust you and believe you will return the art to museums and collectors. If anyone finds out we could both be killed. You would not be stealing, you would be preserving the art of France.”  Gaelle asked,”Where would I hide them?” The officer says,”Somewhere on your estate, I leave that up to you. I will give you rolled up canvases.” He further says, “You must conceal them and return them after we leave. We will be withdrawing in the next few months.”

Gaelle does not know what to do. She does not know whether this is a trick to find out about the French resistance group or a humanitarian trying to protect France’s art treasures. She thought perhaps it was his way of making restitution and all Germans were not bad. She was in so deep for taking the children that taking an additional risk for art didn’t worry her. And he was right, their national art treasures belonged to France and everyone knew the Germans had been stealing them throughout the Occupation. She agreed to help conceal the art and return it to the Louvre and Jeu de Paume, a smaller museum in Paris, when they left.

The commander gave her a loaf of bread and she left to share it with her mother on the third floor of their home. When she opened the loaf which had been cut in half, there was a carefully wrapped and  rolled up canvas painting by Renoir of a child. The commander must have known she saved Jewish children through the fiercely patriotic French resistance. She probably would be patriotic enough to risk saving French art.

There are pros and cons to Gaelle’s arrangement in believability but the story is so compelling that the reader agrees to believe it. She met with the Commander weekly and transferred art to save it always coming out with a loaf of bread.     However, the help began to think she was a collaborator for food with the enemy. When the commander left, he shook her hand and thanked her for her help and for using her home for four years. They never had an affair. The help were wrong and misunderstood the arrangement.

When the Americans came, they washed across the countryside like fresh water. However, the help reported to the new French government that Gaelle was friendly with the enemy. Her head was shaved like all collaborators and she was disgraced in the community. But it was Gaelle who was betrayed, not France. She packed up 39 rolled canvases of art and returned them to the Lourvre. She also packed up a few personal things and left the chateau, never wanting to see it again. She made an appointment at the Lourve to return 3 suitcases of rolled canvas art works. The snobby secretary in the museum brushed her off when she saw the bedraggled clothes Gaelle wore and her short hair, a sign of a collaborator.

Gaelle refused to leave without an authority being called and several appear who do not have the time to waste on nonsense. However, all are astounded because each agree the paintings are originals.The museum is delighted to accept them and promises to hunt for the provenance of them and find the owners. One woman executive thanks Gaelle and gives her an address for a job. Gaelle goes to the address and gets a minor job. The address turns out to be a  fashion design house, where she is introduced to a new designer, Christian Dior. Later at the age of twenty-one, she becomes a model in the atelier of Christian Dior, one of his top models. She lives to be 95.

To find out what happens to Gaelle de Barbet in Paris two months after World War II, and the rest of her full and colorful life,you must read this fascinating book.

It is a page turner. It has been said if a film or novel can allow you to enter it’s story for a short time and believe it, even if the plot is not probable, it is a great and successful work. This book does that. Both sides of humanity are seen in the  German occupation in France during World War II. The book reveals that appearances and stereotypes are misleading. Nothing in life is black or white. Thank goodness for the French underground resistance groups and the wonderful importance of art in all peoples’ lives. I could not put the book down.

— Pat Davidson Reef is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston. She received her Masters Degree at the University of Southern Maine. She taught English and Art History at Catherine McAuley High for many years. She now teaches at the University of Southern Maine in Portland in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Classic Films. She recently wrote a children’s book,”Dahlov Ipcar Artist,” and has now completed another children’s book “Bernard Langlais Revisited.”

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