Friday, July 1, 2011

Excerpt: How Huge the Night by Heather Munn and Lydia Munn

Heather Munn and Lydia Munn, authors of the book How Huge the Night, stopped by to share an excerpt from their book.

Chapter 1
Not in Paris Anymore

“Isn’t that beautiful, Julien?” “No.”
Even without looking, he knew he had hurt his father. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stood there at the top of the hill, look- ing at the so-called view. A few hills with trees on them and cow pastures in between and, tumbled down the hillside like blocks some giant kid had spilled, the houses of Papa’s hometown.
Papa thought he’d given Julien a great present. Taken all his happy boyhood memories and wrapped them in a brown paper package and tied it up with string. Papa. I know where I’m not wanted. While Mama and Magali unpacked the boxes, he’d gone down into town and seen the flat, cold eyes of the guys his age. The stares that told him not to come closer. Not to say hi. He’d lost his way and wandered narrow dirt and cobblestone streets, not daring to speak to anyone. He passed old men in cloth caps, cigarette stubs in their dirty fingers, laughing; he heard one say something about “les estivants,” and his friend reply, “At least they’ll leave.” Les estivants. The summer people. No, see, I live here. Unfortunately.
“I know you miss Paris, Julien. But Tanieux is a very special town.”
There was a tightness in Julien’s chest. I tried so hard to lie to you, Papa. I can’t do it anymore.
“I hate it here.”
“Julien.” His father’s voice was sharp. “You know nothing about this town. Do you know what it’s called when you hate something you know nothing about? It’s called prejudice.”
“I know something. I know they hate me.” “Julien, what basis can you possibly have—” Day before yesterday on his way through town, Julien had seen
a soldier in full uniform—a Third Armored Company uniform, brown leather jacket. A tank driver—man he’d wanted to talk to that guy—holding the hand of this beautiful girl in a white dress, with all these guys Julien’s age clustered round, and everyone going on about something he couldn’t quite hear—blah blah Germany, some- thing something Hitler, blah blah blah army, get ’em, loud shouts of Yeah and laughter, and then the girl shouting, It’s not funny, it’s not funny, you could get killed!
Julien had stood there, riveted by that beautiful girl shouting at her soldier, and a hot whisper had run through his veins: It’s war— isn’t it. And he’d taken one step into the street, to cross, to ask What happened? What did Hitler do?—and the soldier had turned to him with a flat, outraged stare. And then the others, one by one—like he was a cat that had peed on the carpet. The girl in the white dress didn’t look at him at all. He could still feel it. It burned.
“That pastor promised you this job in his new school, and now it’s not even opening and now you have to teach at the public boys’ school. Why do you like it here?”
“The new school will open next year, and I will teach there. As you know.” Papa’s voice was hard now. Yeah. He knew. He knew next week he would have to walk through the school gate and face those guys who’d looked at him like he was something they’d found under a rock. He would have to walk through that gate beside some skinny Jewish kid with glasses—some kid with parents from Germany—their new boarder, who was going to get the empty room across from his in a few days so they could be the two new boys from Paris, together.
“You also know that there is going to be a war. So aside from why I like it here, you could try considering what other reasons your mother and I might have had for moving south.”
He’d come home, the day he’d seen the soldier, to find his sister cooking supper. Burning supper. To find that Hitler had invaded Poland and his mother and father were in their bedroom with the door closed. His mother hadn’t come out.
There was silence for a moment. Julien thrust his hands into his pockets and contemplated the dull gray slate roofs of beautiful, beautiful Tanieux.
“You see this bush?”
Julien glanced up. Papa was pointing at a green, scrubby thing that looked like an uneven, upside-down broom. He didn’t look mad. Apparently they were moving on to botany. “Do you know what it’s called?”
“It’s a genêt. Around here we used to call them balais.” Brooms, how brilliant. “You could use them for a broom if you didn’t have one. You could burn them for winter fuel when there wasn’t enough wood.”
Or tie them on your feet for snowshoes. For walking to school uphill both ways.
“We did that during the Great War. There wasn’t enough of any- thing then.”
Julien looked at the bush, its skeletal green fingers all pointing up at the sky. Dozens like it, all down the hillside, dotted the cow pastures. They didn’t look like anything the cows would want to eat. They didn’t look like they would burn either.
“I don’t know what the next few years hold, Julien. But the peo- ple who live on this land—they know how to survive.” Papa looked out over the hills. “You don’t know how deep your roots go till you need them.”
Julien said nothing. His father sighed, and turned, and led the way on down the road to Grandpa’s farm.
They had come here every Christmas since Julien was a kid; he could see it without even shutting his eyes, what it looked like in winter. Snow blowing over rock-hard wheel ruts frozen in the mud, the bitter wind cutting through your clothes: the burle, a wind so harsh it had a name. That was Tanieux to him: a winter town, a cold, stone village huddled on its hillside, Grandpa’s kitchen its one welcoming place. He’d loved that kitchen, golden with firelight, warm with the steam of a pot-au-feu on the stove.
Now it was hot and bright and dusty, and the garden was a vast green jungle, and his back hurt worse than it ever had in his life, and he was less than halfway done with his row of beans. Mama was in the kitchen, her eyes red and her black hair plastered to her fore- head, canning the three buckets he’d already picked, with Magali, his younger sister, stoking the woodstove. And Mama wasn’t sing- ing; she was working and not singing. It wasn’t right.
Mama was good. She should have been an opera singer; there’d never been a day in Paris that she didn’t sing. Thinking of it, the sound of it, he was visited with a sudden, painful image of hap- piness: looking out their kitchen window, down into the little courtyard with the sun shining through the leaves of the tree he’d climbed as a kid, looking at his cousin Vincent standing down there with his brown leather soccer ball under his arm, calling, “Come on, Julien. Let’s go!”
And instead, he’d go home tonight and sit with an aching back, alone in his room, and tomorrow he’d wake up and look out the window and see not his own street but the jumbled rooftops of Tanieux, where nobody wanted him. From the window of his room, he could see all the way down to the boys’ school, a square gray block with a low stone wall around it, standing alone on the other side of the river. It looked like a prison from where he was standing. He’d be starting in a week.
He walked away. Suddenly, and fast.
He didn’t know where he was going. Away. A feverish energy drove his feet: they kicked at the dirt between the rows, they moved like there was someplace to go to get rid of that aching knot behind his breastbone. Between the edge of the garden and the woods was a long, low stack of graying firewood, and an ax stuck in a piece of log.
He looked around. No one. He tugged on the ax, and it came free. He had seen this before: you lifted it up over your shoulder, and then you swung, and it—
It bounced so hard it nearly jerked his arms out of their sockets. He looked quickly around. Then at the wood: there was a mark, a little line cut in its surface. That was what he’d done.
He raised the ax up again—Oh yeah? This is for Tanieux—and smashed it down into the log. It bounced again. He set his jaw.
This is for that soldier yesterday. And that girl—that girl ignoring me. Wham! The ax bounced higher than before, almost over his head, and at the end of its bounce, he bore down wildly and brought it crashing down again with a resounding whack as the ax head hit the log side-on, its blade not even touching the wood. “Aaaah!” Julien roared, and kicked the log over and the ax with it.
He jerked around so fast the tree line blurred. Grandpa. Grandpa standing with his seamed and weathered face set hard as stone. He had never seen Grandpa look like that.
“Do you know what one of those things can do to you?” Julien looked down at the ax, and kept on looking at it. “Look at me. Do you know?” Julien looked at him. It kind of hurt. “No.”
“It can put a deep enough cut in your foot to lame you for life. It can put a deep enough cut elsewhere to bleed you to death. Especially,” he said in a sharp voice, “if no one is with you when you do it.”
“I’m sorry, Grandpa. I’m really sorry.” “You’re the only grandson I’ve got, Julien.” “Yes, sir.” “And I’d like to keep you. If I may.” His voice had the slightest
tremble in it. “I know I never forbade you to touch my maul with- out asking, but I didn’t think I needed to.”
“Your what?” Grandpa gestured at the ax. “What did you think that was?” “An ax.” Grandpa’s mouth twitched. A web of smile wrinkles began to
break out around his eyes. “Let me show you what an ax looks like.”
The ax was thin and sharp, for felling trees; the maul was wedge shaped, for splitting them. At least he’d been using it for the right job. Grandpa showed him how to set his log on a base; how to aim along the grain and keep his eye on it; how to try again. And again. And again. Then showed him how to start with the maul as far back behind his head as he could reach. Since he wasn’t strong enough to do it the normal way. Grandpa didn’t say that part. He didn’t have to.
I’m going to get you, log.
Julien lifted his maul into position and sighted; then sudden as lightning, he went into the swing with every ounce of strength he had, feeling the power of it, the earth pulling with him as the heavy maul fell—and glanced off hard to the right as the log tumbled off the base and Julien stumbled forward and cracked his shin on it, painfully. He stood there, his teeth clenched on a curse word, blink- ing fast against the sting of tears.
“The first time I tried to split wood,” said Grandpa’s voice from behind him, “my brother asked if I was trying to dig a hole. ’Cause he’d never thought of using a maul, but it seemed to be working.”
Julien tried to grin. Grandpa had probably been ten years old. Not fifteen.
“It’s not the easiest, moving.” Julien stared at him. “You’re supposed to learn so many things you never knew, and
everyone else has known them forever. I only did it once—and I didn’t take to it. Came right back home to Tanieux after a year.”
Well I don’t have that option.
“Looking like a fool. I broke my apprenticeship. That made me officially a failure.”
Julien blinked. “So then what did you do?”
“I did what you do when you’ve failed to better yourself. Became a farmer.” He stood silent a moment, his eyes on the hills, and said quietly, “And loved it.”
Julien followed his grandfather’s gaze out over the long rows of the garden, over the field of oats golden in the sun, to the rounded silhouette of the nearest hill; and suddenly it went all through him again like quiet fire: War. There’s going to be a war.
“Grandpa? What was the Great War like?” “We were very hungry.” Hungry? To cover his confusion, Julien picked up the log and set
it on the base again. “The front didn’t come anywhere near this far south. You know
that, I’m sure. But there weren’t enough men to go around here in the hills, and there weren’t enough hands to do what needed doing—and even afterward . . .” His eyes were shadowed as he looked at Julien. “It seemed like only half of them came back. And they weren’t the same. There was something in them you couldn’t understand. I mean,” he said slowly, “something I couldn’t under- stand. I wasn’t there, you know. Your father wasn’t either. He was too young.” Grandpa glanced away. “Barely.”
Julien looked down at the maul, thinking about this. Neither his father nor his grandfather. And Papa said France would declare war within the week. And here he was.
“Your mother, on the other hand—the front passed over her vil- lage twice, in Italy. But you know that, I’m sure.”
He looked away. Something was tightening in his chest. Sure. Of course. Except no one ever tells me anything. He lifted the maul, and his grandfather stepped back; but then he stopped and looked up at the hills and swallowed. “No,” he said. “I didn’t.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Uncle Giovanni used to tell me and Vincent all about his friends in the prison camp and the crazy escape schemes they cooked up. It took me awhile to figure out there was more to the war than that.”
“They just don’t want to talk about it,” Grandpa murmured. “I suppose we’ll never understand.”
Julien looked at the maul in his hands and looked at Grandpa. “Maybe I will,” he said.
Grandpa’s face changed in an instant. “No,” he whispered. He was pale. “Julien. Don’t say that. You’re fifteen, Julien.”
“I know.” Julien’s voice was a whisper too. He didn’t know where to look, didn’t know what to do with the fire that was rushing through his body. He hefted the maul and swung it suddenly in a fast, tight circle, his eye on the grain of the wood. There was a thunk, and the two halves of the log sprang away to either side. They lay on the grass, incredible, their split edges clean as bone.
The lowering sun shone through the big south window as they finished their quiet supper, making patches of gold on the wall.
Julien’s back and arms ached. Mama’s eyes weren’t red anymore, but something about her didn’t seem right. She didn’t look at any of them. Papa asked how many jars of beans she’d canned, and she answered without looking at him, without looking at anything— except a glance, lightning quick, toward the window. Not at the light. At the radio.
“Mama,” said Magali. She tossed her curly black hair. “Hey, Mama.”
Mama didn’t answer. “Mama, tell them about the mouse.” Julien watched his mother swallow and turn toward Magali with
difficulty, like someone bringing herself out of a trance. “In the sink?” Magali prompted. “You tell it, Lili,” said Mama softly. “Well, there was this mouse,” Magali started. “Um, in the sink.
Except we didn’t see it until I’d run the dishwater. And it was alive— I don’t know how it got in there, but it was alive, and it was swim- ming round and round . . . looking . . . y’know . . . kinda scared . . . and then I fished it out and put it outside. It was funny,” she finished gamely. She looked at Mama again. Mama didn’t seem to see her. She turned on Julien. “Hey, I heard you split a log. In only half an hour.”
“Yeah? You wanna try?” growled Julien. “I bet I could do it.” “Don’t bet your life savings.” The chime of the grandfather clock
by the stairwell door cut through Julien’s words, and, a second later, the deep tolling of the church bell in town. Papa and Mama were both on their feet.
Mama stood still, both hands on the table. Papa crossed the room and switched on the radio.
Loud static leapt into the room, a buzzing like an army of bees. Mama went to the radio. Julien and Magali followed. Phrases came through as they leaned in: a general mobilization. Reinforcements being sent to the Maginot Line. British forces are landing in France to . . . since our nation’s declaration of war . . .
Efforts to persuade Belgium and Holland have failed . . . mmzzzzsh . . . remain neutral. Gallant Poland is no match for the German war machine . . . crack-crack-crack-fzz . . . pushing deep into the countryside . . . ffff . . . no stopping . . . crack-crack-crack-crack!
Papa switched off the radio. Julien and Magali looked at each other. Magali’s eyes were wide. “Maria,” said Papa in a gentle voice. “You get some rest. I’ll do
the dishes.” Mama nodded, not looking at anything. She walked slowly
toward the bedroom door, stumbling on the edge of the rug as if she were blind.
Julien couldn’t sleep. His room on the third floor under the eaves was like an oven. His arms ached. His country was at war. He twisted and turned in the sweaty sheets, trying to find a position where his arms didn’t hurt.
He got up and opened the window to ragged clouds lit by the half moon. And the faint gleam of the river down at the far edge of town by the school. He turned away.
He slipped out his door, quietly, and down the hall to the stair- well; down the stone stairs, cool on his bare feet, to the second floor where his family lived. The living and dining room was full of moonlight and shadows. He crept to the bathroom door and opened it very quietly. Mama and Papa were asleep in the next room. He’d turn the water on just a trickle, wash the sweat off—
His hand froze on the tap.
“It won’t be like that, Maria.” His father’s voice carried through the thin wall. “We’re not in Paris anymore. There’s nothing they want in Tanieux.”
“There was nothing they wanted in Bassano.”
He had never heard her voice like that. Bitter.
Papa answered in a low voice Julien could not catch. He put his ear to the wall. He shouldn’t listen. He shouldn’t.
“. . . reasons we’re here. And Benjamin—his parents want safety for him more than anything, and this is where they chose. Maria, I firmly believe that the Germans cannot get this far south.”
“Unless they win.” A chill went down Julien’s spine, the way she said it. She said it as if they would.
He opened the door very slowly, very quietly, listening to his father’s murmur in which he caught only the name Giovanni, and then soldier, and then Julien’s too young. Then louder: “You will never be alone like that again.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Her voice was flat and terrible.
Julien ran light and silent on his bare feet, through the stairwell door and up the cold stone stairs in the dark, and threw himself into bed, trembling.
He closed his eyes, pictured his street back in Paris, the Rue Bernier: the green grass of the park and Vincent’s brown leather soc- cer ball; the shouts of the guys, Renaud and Gaëtan and Mathieu; Mama leaning out their second-story window, calling him in for supper. Home, Paris, with none of this happening.
This was happening.
He turned over and smashed his face into the pillow. They cannot get this far south. Unless they win.
They wouldn’t win—they couldn’t win. But if they made it into France at all, where would they aim for? Paris—where Vincent and Uncle Giovanni were, and Aunt Nadine and the little girls—that was where. He saw, suddenly, himself and Vincent in brown leather jackets, in two tanks at the mouth of the Rue Bernier, shuddering with the recoil of the guns. They shall not pass.
In his history textbook, there’d been a map of the Great War: little red lines, jagged red splashes. Verdun had been a red splash, and no one had told him Verdun was a city where boys played in the park and mothers leaned out second-floor windows to call them in for supper. Bullets broke those windows. He saw the kitchen at home in Paris, the scarred pine table he’d known forever, broken glass and shrapnel among the dishes in the sink. Stupid. So stupid. How could he not have known?
He was shaking.
He got out of bed and went to the window. Dark clouds were blowing in over the moon. A breeze touched his face.
A faint sound began to rise from below, a pure and lovely thread of song through the darkness. Mama’s voice. From her open bed- room window, just below his, rose the sound of Mama quietly sing- ing the song she had sung in church every year at Easter ever since he could remember. To you the glory, O risen one.
The resurrection song.
Julien knelt at the window and listened, lips parted, taking in that pure sound till it ached in his limbs. He leaned his face into his hands and saw her in his mind, standing alone and singing, and it came to him that if he ever became a soldier, it would break her heart. The war would have to last three or four years first, and she could not survive that. And then his going away. Her voice rose easy as a bird to its final line: No, I fear nothing. Then stopped.
Julien looked up. The moon was gone, and so were the stars, and he was on his knees. “God,” he whispered. His voice was dry. “God. Please don’t let them get to Paris. Please keep . . . everybody . . . safe.” He sounded like a child—and God bless Mommy. When had God ever stopped a war because a teenager asked him to? The image came back, the tanks firing, the recoil, Vincent’s face grin- ning. He could never be a soldier. Never drive a tank.
It was unbearable.
I want to do something. God. Let me do something. Please. The word serve rose in his mind, the word protect, but he couldn’t even think them; it sounded stupid. What did he know how to do? Do the dishes, play soccer. Split wood.
The breeze brought the scent of rain in the dark. A drop fell on the windowsill. He got back into bed, pulled the sheet up over himself, and slept.


About the book:

How Huge the Night: A NovelFifteen-year-old Julien Losier just wants to fit in. But after his family moves to a small village in central France in hopes of outrunning the Nazis, he is suddenly faced with bigger challenges than the taunting of local teens.

Nina Krenkel left her country to obey her father's dying command: Take your brother and leave Austria. Burn your papers. Tell no one you are Jews. Alone and on the run, she arrives in Tanieux, France, dangerously ill and in despair. 

Thrown together by the chaos of war, Julien begins to feel the terrible weight of the looming conflict and Nina fights to survive. As France falls to the Nazis, Julien struggles with doing what is right, even if it is not enough-and wonders whether or not he really can save Nina from almost certain death.

Based on the true story of the town of Le Chambon-the only French town honored by Israel for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust-How Huge the Night is a compelling, coming-of-age drama that will keep teens turning the pages as it teaches them about a fascinating period of history and inspires them to think more deeply about their everyday choices.

About the authors:

Heather Munn was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in southern France where her parents were missionaries like their parents before them. She has a BA in literature from Wheaton College and now lives in a Christian intentional community in rural Illinois, where she and her husband, Paul, host free spiritual retreats for the poor, especially those transitioning out of homelessness or addiction. When not writing or hosting, she works on the communal farm.

Lydia Munn, daughter of missionary parents, grew up in Brazil. She received a BA in literature from Wheaton College, and an MA in Bible from Columbia Graduate School of Bible and   Missions. With her husband, Jim, she has worked in church planting and Bible teaching since 1983, notably in St. Etienne, near the small town in the central mountains of France which forms the background of How Huge the Night. The Munns now live in Grenoble, France.  



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