When ten-year-old Jacqueline Falna hears her mother’s scream, she is unaware that the axis of her world is about to tilt. Her father’s plane has been shot down by German fighters. In the midst of poverty, food shortages, air raids, and the grinding hardship of daily life under Nazi rule, she forms an unlikely alliance with David Bergier, a twelve-year-old Jewish neighbor who poses as her cousin after his family is “relocated” by the Nazis. When Rennes is liberated, Jacqueline meets an American soldier and becomes convinced that he has been sent to reunite her with her father.
Based on a true story, this multi-award winning novel is a tale of family, faith, unusual friendships, and the resiliency of the human spirit set against the backdrop of occupied Rennes in 1944. With the drama of fiction and the authenticity of personal history, "Jacqueline" is both a story about family and a family’s story.
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Rennes, France – March 8, 1943
Her mother’s scream was followed by the crash of shattering glass.
“Maman?” Jacqueline Falna dropped her book and dashed toward the sound. She found her mother slumped on the floor. Her face was buried in her hands. The cup of coffee she’d been drinking lay in shards, the muddy liquid seeping into the hem of her skirt.
Jacqueline tiptoed toward her mother, careful to avoid the sharp slivers of china. “Oh, Maman, you have broken your cup.”
The cup was one of Maman’s treasures. She said it made the bitter brew of chicory and roasted acorns taste more like the real coffee she loved before the German army occupied Rennes. The dainty china cup was all that remained of a wedding gift from her brother, Henri, who died in the Battle of France. Maman recovered it from the rubble of their home after German planes bombed the city. Had it been only four years ago? Jacqueline remembered that house – the sunny kitchen, the large parlor, and best of all, the room of her very own. Her old home was so different from the cramped one-room apartment here on Rue Noel du Fail, where people lived above and below, and old Madame Dupre, the upstairs neighbor, pounded the floor with her cane whenever Jacqueline was too noisy.
Maman shook with silent sobs.
“Do not cry. I will help you clean it up.” Jacqueline turned to get the broom and spied a sheet of paper lying in the puddle of coffee. She plucked it up by the corner and shook it dry. As she read the message, her chest grew so tight she could hardly breathe.
‘Dear Madame Falna,
It is my sad duty to inform you that your husband, Capitaine Jacques Falna, was lost in battle over Lorient when his plane was shot down by enemy fighters. I regret that we have been unable to recover his remains, but I hope it will be of some comfort to know that he died a hero in defense of our beloved France…’
She stopped reading. The letter fell from her hands and drifted back to the wet floor. Little sparks danced before her eyes, and the room began spinning. She sank to her knees and put her head in her mother’s lap. Over the roaring sound in her ears, she heard Maman wail.
“Oh, Jacqueline, whatever shall we do?”
As Jacqueline tried to think, an avalanche of pain overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes while Maman stroked her dark curls. Her thoughts drifted back to the last time she saw Papa.
It was Christmas Eve. He came in secret late at night. Since he was a pilot for the Free French Air Force, he had to avoid being spotted by Nazi soldiers. Maman woke her, and the three of them spent the night talking and laughing, basking in the joy of being together. Papa looked so handsome in his dark blue uniform, a medal with the gold-winged FAFL insignia pinned to his jacket. He even brought Jacqueline a Christmas gift – L’Humble Sainte Bernadette, a book about Saint Bernadette of Lourdes.
“I know how much you love to read,” Papa said. “This book is about a French girl who was brave and true despite great hardship. She was called by the Blessed Lady when she was only fourteen, just four years older than you. I pray she will watch over you while I am gone.”
Gone, Jacqueline thought. Papa, gone? No, it cannot be! She forced her eyes open and realized her thumb was in her mouth. She jerked it out, shocked to have lapsed into a habit she broke when she was five. The words echoed in her mind – lost in battle…shot down by enemy fighters…unable to recover his remains… A sudden thought made her bolt upright.
“Maman, do not cry. Papa is not dead,” she said. “He is missing, but he will find his way home. He would never leave us.”
Maman shook her head. “Child, you must accept what is true.”
Jacqueline leapt to her feet. “No!” she shrieked, grabbing the letter. “This is not true. He is alive. You will see!” She crushed the soggy paper in her fist and threw it to the floor. Then she ran out the door and down the stairs, almost knocking over Madame Bergier who was hurrying up the steps from her apartment.
“Jacqueline! Is something wrong?” she asked. “I thought I heard your mother scream. Does she need help?”
Jacqueline ignored Madame Bergier and kept running, out onto Rue Noel du Fail and through the narrow streets of the city. She didn’t stop until she reached the Cathedrale Sainte-Pierre. As she entered the dark church, her heavy breathing broke the stillness. She slipped into a wooden pew and bowed her head.
“Please, God,” she prayed, “make it not be true. Please bring Papa home. I will do anything You ask, just let him be alive.” She turned to her left where a statue of Saint Bernadette gazed down at flickering rows of red votive candles. “Saint Bernadette, help me to be brave like you so Papa will be proud of me when he returns.”
The scent of incense and candle wax was strangely comforting. As her breathing slowed, Jacqueline felt the pain in her chest shrink into a hard little ball. She locked it deep in her heart. She knew she could never let it out. If she did, it would surely eat her alive.