Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publication date: May 6, 2014
Summary (via Goodreads):
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
After I finished reading the most magnificent, beautiful, thrilling, dazzling, wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning book called All the Light We Cannot See, it got me wondering about a lot of things that I can't seem to shake...
1. The way we pass judgment on people.
The way we decide if someone is "good" or "bad," and whether or not they are redeemable. The way we hold people accountable. How do we decide who the Von Rumpels and Claude Levittes of the world are? And the Werner Pfennigs and the Frank Volkheimers? How do we decide whose decisions are justified, whose motivations are strong enough to counterbalance all the bad that they create, whose backstories rationalize their actions & where they end up?
Anthony Doerr, the author of the book, paints Werner and Volkheimer in the most fascinating light. Werner, the small boy, instrumental to the German war effort, but still just a boy, one who buttons his coat all the way to the top and pulls his sleeves down over his fingers when it's cold. Volkheimer, the giant, the one all the boys look up to – who will shoot a man in the back of his head but whose entire expression changes when he listens to classical music.
Every so often there's something in the news about former Nazi supporters being found out and tried as war criminals. I bury myself in the comments as the debate rages on: Does justice even matter at this point? Should people be held accountable for what they did 60 years ago when they were young, impressionable teenagers? Can war crimes ever be forgiven? For some people, it's black and white. And for others, it's more complicated. I'm not sure what I believe, but I do know that within a single human being, there is the capacity to be both very good and very bad. And maybe certain things in our lives push us toward a proclivity for one or the other.
2. The reality of war & the impossibility of happy endings.
When people get taken to labor camps and prison camps, they probably won't come back. And yet, one still hopes... (Maybe I am an optimist after all.) I spend so much of my life hoping for miracles, for impossibilities, for torn apart families to find each other again, for there to be a switch that makes everything better. I'm not prepared for books that mix magical realism with reality, it messes with my brain.
3. The way we trivialize the past.
We're so careless with history, the people who have lived and died. Like they're just facts in a textbook, even though they changed lives. The self-immolating monk. Emmett Till. The Vietnam War. All of these things I learned in school, reduced to grainy pictures in a history book that I never read, that was filled with doodles from all the students of years past. Historic sites are filled with tourists who say cheese as they snap their selfies. Candy wrappers strewn about military forts where men and boys gave their lives. A Buddhist saying: Nothing is sacred.
4. Courage, manifested by everyday heroes.
"When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?"
I don't know, I don't know. I just want to leave these few lines here and let them germinate because it seems so natural, live your life, do what must be done, but it's still so easy to bury your head in the sand and pretend like nothing's the matter. Marie-Laure kept her head up, but it took Werner longer, and maybe it takes other people such a long time as well – so how do we learn to live our lives like we have no choice, to do what must be done, even when we're scared? What are the stakes and how do we make them matter so that we don't let our days fall away?
5. The world, which spins on and on and on.
The Sea of Flames is a blue diamond that took eons to form and has existed for eons after. It has lived through dynasties, the rise and fall of empires, endless numbers of births, deaths, and continues to live through all of these things, even as people's entire worlds come to an end.
Bombings, a new state of emergency, viruses spread. Pop culture icons die, one right after another, in the span of seven days, and the world keeps spinning on. Just headlines on the news' front page. Tomorrow the headlines will change. Maybe there will be more bombings, maybe the viruses will continue to spread, but the tides still rise and fall, Earth still spins on its axis, stars explode and die out and it takes a thousand light-years for us to even notice.
I love these books that make me question my life and my world and my society and the way we move forward in time. It's like staring up into the sky at night, away from all the lights, and you're swallowed by the vast expanse of space and you feel both big and small, important and alive but just the owner of a life that will be lived and gone in the blink of an eye.