The novel “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is a story about the German occupation of a village in Normandy during World War ll. In August 1944 this historic walled city of Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany, was almost totally destroyed by fire. The novel tells the parallel stories set in World War ll of two children, growing up in different countries – France and Germany – during the years 1934 to 1944.
The development of the story lines for the two main characters is effectively told in alternating chapters. Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives in Paris with her father, Daniel LeBlanc, who is the master locksmith of the National Museum of Natural History. When she becomes blind at age 6 from a degenerative disease, her father builds a miniature of their neighborhood, and Marie-Laure learns to navigate by touch and then by memory. On a tour of the museum with other children, she hears the legend of the jewel, a 133-carat stone known as the Sea of Flames.
Moving forward to 1940, Paris is occupied by the Nazis and 12-year-old Marie-Laure and her father escape to Saint-Malo. The director of the museum secretly gives Daniel the Sea of Flames to protect. The two will live with her reclusive great uncle Etienne, who lives in a house next to a sea wall and is part of the Resistance.
The parallel stories involve the German child, Werner Pfenning, who has grown up in an orphanage in Zollverein, a small mining town, with his younger sister, Jutta. Their father is killed in a mining accident. They live in a group home and are raised by a French- speaking woman. Because of his absorption and aptitude in mechanics, electricity and building radios, he is summoned to the quarters of Herr Siedler, a German officer, to repair the officer’s radio. Grateful for Werner’s help, the officer arranges for him to attend the prestigious National Political Institutes of Education in Essen, a training ground for Hitler’s Youth. Werner impresses his teachers with his extraordinary science and math skills and eventually is recruited by the Wehrmacht to track down illegal transmissions.
Time passes and the 18-year-old Werner is disillusioned with the Nazi cause. Facing tough moral choices, he finds his beliefs all but gone. But two months after the Normandy invasion, his unit is told to relocate and destroy the source of the transmissions coming from Saint-Malo to Russia and central Europe.
In 1944, Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths finally converge when the Allied forces have landed on the beaches of Normandy.
Although Mr. Doerr uses World War II as a backdrop, it does not dominate the story. The author uses the childhoods of these characters, one spent in darkness because of her blindness and the other exploring sound, to create an interesting and historically accurate story.
“All the Light We Cannot See” gives the reader a clear look at both sides of the war, the losses on both sides and the healing power of time.