2015 TBR Pile Challenge: A Train in Winter

I wrote this last week, before the horrific, devastating events in Paris. Having read this book now feels even more timely. I know that Parisians won’t let the senseless, cowardly attacks define them. The citizens of Paris, of France will always overcome. Vive la France!

I put off reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two* for a really long time.

I’ve owned a copy for well over a year and I put it on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list at the end of 2014. And still, I put off reading it ALL YEAR.

Why did I put off reading such an extraordinary and important book forever? I was scared. I was scared that it would make me sad, that it would be difficult to read, that I would cry.

I finally decided that Remembrance Day was the perfect day to spend with this book. It really, really was.


Moorehead packs a lot into 317 pages. The story of these women, mostly Communists in France, working at the beginnings of what would come to be known as the French Resistance, involves 230 individuals. Moorehead doesn’t tell all of their stories, but she tries. She tells us of the work they and their husbands, and sometimes their children, did to try and make life difficult for the occupying Nazis. They distributed pamphlets and flyers, plastered posters all over the city urging the French to resist against the enemy; they gathered information and weapons and moved them around the country to where they would be most useful; they helped Jews and other “undesirables” cross from the occupied territory into the demarcation zone, so that they might have a chance at leaving France; and eventually some of them were part of murdering Nazis, for which they would have to pay.

You learn about who these women were before the war, why it was important to them to fight for France. And when they found themselves imprisoned, the result of some very tenacious collaborative French police officers, they somehow found a way to keep going, to hold each other up even when some of them knew that their husbands were being shot just outside.

For a while I thought it wasn’t going to be so bad – the women were in French prisons but they had figured out a way to live together: they shared their food, put on plays that they could remember, sewed costumes and clothes for each other and wrote letters home. I thought maybe the train in the title was a metaphor for the fear that they all felt, all the time.

But no. Auschwitz beckoned. And everything you’ve read about it…it’s worse in this book. It’s not like I’ve never read about concentration camps – I have. There was just something about this book, though, that made it so much worse. Typhus, diphtheria, attack dogs, sadistic guards (there’s one horrifying photo of the guards at Auschwitz – I thought it was a vacation photo, these young men and women were SO happy and smiling and laughing), heinous living conditions, dying children, disgusting experiments conducted on inmates, filth, horrific punishments – all humanity stripped away.

There were 230 women that went on the train and only 49 of them walked back out two years later.

If you take a quick scan through the Goodreads ratings, a lot of people rate this book quite low. The big complaint seems to be that Moorehead talks about 230 women and it’s a lot of people to keep track of. I didn’t feel that way.  I thought she did an admirable job of telling the stories of these women, these extraordinarily brave wonderful women who managed to look after each other and share what little they had so that they might live together to see another day.

I am a wuss. Because, yes, reading it was difficult and unpleasant and shocking and sad. But the experience of these women was all that and so much worse. The least I could do is read about it so that when these incredible women are no longer with us, we will still know their story.

If you haven’t already, please read this book.

*Please note: the title may be slightly different in your neck of the woods. It’s also titled A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France. I think the “…survival in world war two” version is more apt.

18 thoughts on “2015 TBR Pile Challenge: A Train in Winter

  1. I have this book in my house somewhere, I know, because I almost read it once when I was on a WWII kick. I will have to go dig it up. It sounds more horrific than I thought it would be, so maybe it’s just as well I didn’t read it without being warned.
    I feel the same way about reading these kinds of stories – it’s really the only way we have of honouring what they have done and been through. Great review!

    • I think if I had known, I might have put off reading this forever! It was really well written, Moorehead does an exquisite job but she also doesn’t hold anything back. I’m glad though – if that’s what these women really experienced then I want to read about all of it.

  2. Sometimes, these kinds of books need courage to be read. I’ve added it to my library reading list. I’m gathering courage at the moment to start reading Ravensbrueck by Sarah Helm. These two books would probably go well together.

    • They really would! Some of the women were transferred to Ravensbrueck near the end of the war. Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck were SO different. That books is definitely on my list but I’m not sure when I will get around to it. My heart might need a little time to get over this one.

  3. It’s very, very difficult to convince me to read historical non fiction, but this review was spectacular! You’ve taken it off your TBR and put it onto mine!
    The story reminds me a bit of a book I read ages ago called April in Paris, which was partially about French resistance fighters and broke my heart into a million pieces. I sobbed. It has stayed with me all these years, so maybe I owe that time another visit. Wonderful review!

    • Well thank you! I hope you do end up reading it. These stories do have the tendency to break your heart like that don’t they? I think it’s because they were all just ordinary people hoping for a better world and willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. It’s so sad to think that so many of them sacrificed themselves and never saw the fruits of their labour.

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  5. Wow, this does sound like an incredible and timely read. I have a hard time making myself choose to pick up books I know will make me cry, but they often turn out to be some of my favorites.

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