“How Huge the Night,” by sisters Heather and Lydia Munn, opens in provincial France on the brink of the Nazi invasion. But in a small village, seemingly protected by mountains from the rest of the world in tumult, 15-year-old Julien Losier is more concerned with his teenage woes than the impending occupation.
Julien is angry. Angry at his parents for uprooting the family from their home in Paris to live with his grandfather in Tanieux. Angry at them for taking in a brooding and unfriendly Jewish boy named Benjamin, and expecting him to be his friend. Angry because he is considered an outsider at his new school, and disliked and suspected because of it.
Meanwhile, in Austria, young teens Nina and Gustav are facing much graver concerns. Their father is on his deathbed. His last—and most urgent—command to them is to get out of Austria and go to France. For they are Jewish, and Hitler is coming.
Having no friends or family left, they have no choice but to take his advice. But this will be no easy task, for Nina is disabled and struggles to walk, and they will have to get through Italy first. Disguising herself as a boy, Nina sets off with her younger brother on a journey that seems ill-fated from the outset; little do they know that France, too, will soon be enemy territory.
As 1940 unfolds before the young protagonists, each struggles to see and make sense of God’s invisible hand in their ever-changing and increasingly difficult circumstances. Julien struggles on a daily basis to do seemingly small and yet extremely difficult things like not lose his temper, put up with disagreeable Benjamin, and graciously handle the mean-spirited taunting of his schoolmates.
Yet all around him a greater threat is growing as the arrival of the Nazi forces to their little village becomes more and more imminent. The fear is palpable as the enemy marches closer every day, food is rationed, and the voices of manipulative and powerful Germans take over the radio waves. Julien yearns to do something important: to fight. But with no close friends, and the world as he know it being destroyed around him, he struggles to trust a God he feels he barely knows.
Likewise, Nina also struggles to trust a God she believes has forgotten her and her brother. As she and Gustav slowly make their way to France, they face one extreme trial after another. With every difficulty Nina’s health fails and her fear grows. She feels like hunted prey; she cannot and will not trust anyone. By the time she and Gustav make it to France, she is barely hanging onto life, and longs for the peace she believes only death can bring.
Each faces their greatest challenge when their lives intersect in Tanieux. Nina must choose not to give up, and Julien must choose not to give in. Each must trust in what they cannot see despite extreme physical opposition.
It feels trite to call “How Huge the Night,” a Christy Award finalist, a tale about “coming of age.” Any story that deals with war, racism, prejudice, and genocide seems to carry more weight than that of a teenager making it through some high school crisis and, consequently, becoming more confident in his or her identity. Those stories can, of course, be just as powerful and important. But the historical context of this novel immediately instills a somberness that is missing in many books for teens. This not only adds weight to the challenges—and ultimate tests—for both Julien and Nina, but also gives the reader cause to truly pause and remember a piece of world history that we cannot afford to ever forget.
Additionally the setting of the Munns’ story adds depth to both character and imagery. The landscape of Tanieux—a hidden mountain village prone to chilling winters and biting winds—becomes a complex character in itself, as its cold and bleak isolation becomes one of the very things that protects the people.
Likewise, the huge, dark night provides a picture of the struggle both Julien and Nina face in their quest to better understand God and His faithfulness. At times, the sky appears ominous and looming, not to be trusted as it hides unseen, unavoidable dangers. As the teens face uncertainty and threats, each can’t help but wonder if this is what God is like. And yet at other times, the vast night sky seems to offer peace, quiet, and respite from the external upheaval and their internal questions and fears.
In addition to trusting in God’s providence and having faith in His ultimate goodness, “How Huge the Night” also discusses themes of family and belonging, as well as courage, integrity, and standing up for what is right in the face of direct and even dangerous opposition.
The plot was a little slow in unfolding and the writing itself is neither extremely sharp nor original. However, what the story lacks in style, it makes up for in theme and historical content. Many of the details the Munns include—from the radio announcements to the newspaper headlines Julien reads—deal with actual historical happenings and events. The village of Tanieux is loosely based on the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose people chose to hide—and save—3,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. These details and insights alone make “How Huge the Night” a worthwhile read. And the ways in which the characters respond to the events they face provide a noble example of how we, too, can choose to respond—both to God and our fellow man—in the midst of personal trials and great adversity.
Image copyright Kregel Publications. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Annie Provencher is a writer in Manassas, Va.