When most Americans read about or study World War II, they don't always consider the European perspective, or what was going on in occupied countries. Or, even if they “know” what happened, it might still be hard to imagine. "Resistance," a new graphic novel series written by Carla Jablonski and illustrated by Leland Purvis, explores life in occupied France through the eyes of three children, kids who ultimately join the Resistance in an effort to help a friend in need. The first book arrives in April from First Second Books, and CBR News spoke with Jablonski about the project.
The writer said that she began work on "Resistance" to examine "the impact of living in an occupied country, something we’ve never experienced in the U.S....At the start of Book 1, the French have already signed their armistice agreement with Germany. They were still reeling from the devastation of World War I, and those supporting the new Vichy government believed it would end the killing and save their country in the long run. The French people have lived with a year of deprivation ["Resistance" starts a year into the war] with rationing of everything from food to clothes to gasoline – and things are about to get worse. No one knew how long the situation would last, or what new struggles and conflicts each day would bring."
Despite their circumstance, the kids in this story – Paul and his younger sister Marie and their friend Henri, who is Jewish – still act like kids and find themselves dealing with sibling rivalry, having to confront bullies, and wanting to help out a friend. In one crucual, human scene, Paul and Marie stage a makeshift bar mitzvah for Henri while he is in hiding. "The bar mitzvah scene is actually one of my favorites," Jablonski said. She continued by discussing children's perception of the war and occupation. "In some of the research material it was mentioned a number of times that adults tried very hard to keep life 'normal' for their children," the writer told CBR. "They were often shielded from how bad things really were. But of course, kids figure it out. They find their ways to cope, and they make their own sense of things. What frightens or worries them depends on their age and their personalities. Before Henri is threatened, Marie is mostly concerned about doing well in school, Paul with avoiding his annoying sisters, and [older sister] Sylvie is resentful that everything she’d looked forward to about being sixteen wouldn’t be possible because of the war. Of course, it’s all colored by the occupation and the fact that their father is a prisoner of war. In some ways they regress, in others they display greater maturity."
Paul's and Marie's individual skills are put to use by the Resistance, with Paul's artistic ability and Marie's keen memory aiding the cause, as well as the fact of their childhood itself. But Paul and Marie's perception of their duties is fairly straightforward. "I think kids are very black and white – there’s not a lot of gray area in their thinking until they hit their teens. What’s right is right, that’s it – certainly for Marie," Jablonski said. "It’s more complicated for Sylvie, and to a certain extent Paul. There’s nothing ideological about resistance for Marie – she just wants to help her friend. I also think watching their mother struggle and Paul’s desire to take over his father’s role is a pressure that makes them want to do something. Paul, at 13, is at the difficult age when he hates to be treated like a child but sometimes yearns for the safety and simplicity of being a child. A frustration for many kids (in any era) is the sense that they are at the mercy of adults, with little say over their own lives. By becoming part of the resistance these kids feel less helpless; they have some control in their lives at a time when the entire country is being victimized."
In constructing her story, Jablonski consulted a number of sources for the details of her characters and setting. "I love research, which is why I’m drawn to writing historical fiction," the writer said. "I watched documentaries as well as fictional films that I knew were firmly rooted in fact. I read dozens of books (especially helpful were 'Marianne in Chains,' 'Is Paris Burning? Sisters in the Resistance' and 'Soldiers of the Night') and most eye-opening were some memoirs I stumbled on, all written just a year or two after the war ended by people with very different experiences and perspectives. Using dirt and spiders to 'age' a wall came straight out of memoirs. I also learned about wine cultivation at the time, since the family owns a vineyard, and all sorts of other 'daily life' details to flesh out the time and place. And I looked at loads of pictures, to get a feel for the period. Leland Purvis, the artist, also knows and loves history and did additional research too."
Through the characters' relationships in the graphic novel, Jablonski illustrates that there were many forms of resistance, and the lines between resistance and collaboration weren't always clear. "This had been a very painful period in French history – and it took many years before the truth about collaboration and collaborators was able to be fully acknowledged and written about. It also took time to tease out the true events of the Resistance and the smaller forms resistance could take," Jablonski explained. "The range and fluidity of resistance was fascinating; I think that was something I had never really considered until I was deeply into the research – that someone could resist in one way yet collaborate in another. I was especially struck by how often coincidence seemed to play such a role in the success or failure of a mission. What also stood out to me were the ways life went on: People still fell in love, kids still played games, there were underground dance parties and new kinds of fashions that demonstrated an intrepid spirit. It made me think of that quote: 'Living well is the best revenge.'"
The next book in the trilogy will take place one year after "Resistance" Volume 1, and the final chapter is set one year after that, concluding with the liberation of Paris. Jablonski said that this structure allows readers to see the child heroes of the story grow up and into different roles. "In Book 2 the competing ideas about resistance come into conflict as Paul becomes more radical, the situation in the country worsens, and their older sister Sylvie becomes more involved," she told CBR.
Jablonski is also a playwright and performer, and CBR asked her whether and how the skills associated with acting and writing complement each other."The biggest connection between acting and writing for me is the ability to be completely in a character’s point of view. As I write, it’s like I’m playing the role of each character I’m creating," she said. "For graphic novels my work as a playwright and director complement the writing even more than acting – using dialogue and gesture to convey the story; to think visually about the 'playing area' and ways to direct the reader’s or audience’s eye; knowing when to speed up or slow down, to create silences and space. These are all elements that come into play on the stage and on the page."