While finding a children’s novel placed in Italy during WWII was difficult, doing the same for France was ridiculously easy. So easy, in fact, that I had a list of books I wanted to read. What makes For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley awesome is that it’s for younger readers and also happens to be true. Yup. True story.
Suzanne David Hall is a 13-year-old French girl living in Cherbourg, France when Germany bombs her town at the beginning of the war. She happens to be in the town square when it happens and she sees a pregnant woman she knows get brutally killed along with the unborn baby. Meanwhile, she’s training to be a classical opera singer.
Two years later—she and her family have suffered much from the occupying Nazis from the seizure of their home to a destruction of their possessions to severe food shortages—and she’s approached by the French Resistance to deliver messages to other spies while she goes about practicing and singing in the opera. She does it at great risk to herself and her family (who don’t know) for the next three years
Eventually—and inevitably—she’s captured by the Germans. Slowly the spy ring in which she’s part has been taken out, and she’s had to deliver more and more messages more and more often (up to several times a day). She knows that capture is a certainty, but she does it for freedom, for France, and for the possibility that help will come soon.
During her interrogation, the Allies invade Normandy on D-Day, and she’s able to escape. She’s one of only two spies out of 22 who survived. She finds out later that the coded messages she delivered were critical for the invasion as they contained valuable information about currents, tides, German force numbers and placement, etc. She was awarded the Crois de Lorraine medal, fell in love with an American soldier, and moved to the United States.
I loved this book, the bravery and selflessness of the regular people, the everyday farmers and doctors and shopkeepers and—yes—opera singers. It reminds me of the everyday heroism that I read in Number the Stars and Code Name Verity. These were people who had integrity, who acted despite the hardship, who knew what was truly important in life…and death.
Characters. The fact that Suzanne really exists and really did all these things made this book a million times better. She was portrayed well: complex and heroic and human. She was scared, but still willing to risk herself. The secondary characters were fantastic as well, but Suzanne was my favorite, quickly followed by her singing teacher, the one person who had an idea of what she was doing and helped as much as she could.
Storyline. For a plot that covers five years and an entire war, this book didn’t feel rushed despite its short length. Probably because instead of shoving in battles and dates, the author focused on Suzanne’s timeline: her schooling, her singing, her operas.
The Writing. For Freedom has the charming forthrightness that makes children’s books so beautiful to read:
“I want them to understand why all of us who were part of the French Resistance risked out lives.
“We did it to fight Hitler, of course, and all the evil that he spread. We did it to save innocents; we did it because there were people we could not save. We did it for France, for the way our lives had been before the war. But mostly we did it for ourselves, so that we would never have to look back and admit that we had not acted against the horrors that swirled around us.
“We did it for freedom. Our own.”