Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2021

Small Acts of Defiance, by Michelle Wright

An interesting editorial dilemma arises as the narrative reaches a crescendo in this interesting debut novel from Melbourne author Michelle Wright.

Small Acts of Defiance is not another of those clichéd historical novels of female Resistance in WW2 France.  This one concerns an Australian — still in her late teens when she arrives in Paris with her newly widowed French-born mother Yvonne after a family tragedy. They arrive just as Paris surrenders to German Occupation but the process of settling in is made easier because Lucie grew up speaking fluent French with Yvonne.  This enables Lucie to put her artistic talents to good use for Margot, who runs an art supplies shop, and thus she makes the acquaintance of a Jewish engraver called Samuel Hirsch and his granddaughter Aline.

It is through Samuel and Aline that Lucie becomes aware of the long history of French anti-Semitism and how readily collaborationists are cooperating with German discrimination, appropriation of property, slave labour camps and deportations.  Revealing the dark underbelly of French wartime history that tends to valorise French Resistance, the focus of this novel is resistance against the oppression of the Jews. The context is portrayed through the moral perspective of an outsider who does not yet know of the genocidal intent of that oppression, but recognises that it was imposed by the Germans and actively supported by existing French anti-Semitism.  Her own uncle is explicit in his irrational hatred of Jews.

The novel contrasts Yvonne’s fear of getting involved with the activities of Margot, Lucie, Aline and their friend Robert, to interrogate the moral issues that arise from resistance in occupied territory where the occupiers react with brutal reprisals. Through the portrayal of these contrasting characters, Wright explores the struggle to reconcile the moral imperative to resist with the risks to family, friends and uninvolved strangers.  Depicting Lucie’s objections to violence, the novel also probes the moral issue of whether killing is justifiable if it’s in a good cause.  It is this interrogation of the complexities of resistance that makes Small Acts of Defiance a very interesting novel.  It’s particularly relevant given the distressing rise of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism around the world.

However, in the process of a somewhat heated discussion about whether ‘small acts of defiance’ should escalate, Aline’s ignorance of Australia’s Black history is revealed:

Aline looked away.  She didn’t respond immediately, but stood with her arms crossed, taking rapid, shallow breaths.  When she spoke, her voice was tight with anger.  ‘Can you please stop with your “the pen is mightier than the sword” bullshit? It’s not true, Lucie!  Not when the sword is pushing against your throat.  Not when the sword is a machine gun, a Panzer tank.  You don’t understand! You haven’t lived with war.  Your country hasn’t seen bloodshed on its soil.’ (p.233)

This is August 1942, but presumably Lucie in France hasn’t heard about the blood shed during the bombing of Darwin and other northern coastal cities in February of that year, and her response is restrained.  Her father’s recent suicide was triggered by the resurgence of his memories from WW1, but all she says is: ‘My country has lost men to war’ … ‘we’ve known death too.’

Aline says that’s not the same:

‘Even when that was happening, your life went on.  Your towns weren’t under siege.  There were no massacres in your streets and villages.  You don’t know what it’s like to have your home invaded, to have to take up arms and kill or be killed.’ (p.223)

No massacres?? No invasions??  No resistance battles or bloodshed on Australian soil??

Well, that is the editorial dilemma, eh?  Today, you’d have to have had your head under the proverbial rock (or be wilfully ignorant) not to know about massacres, invasions and heroic Indigenous resistance in Australia’s Black history, but a French girl in 1942 wouldn’t have known about it.  And although Lucie is a remarkably mature and thoughtful young woman for her age, it’s probable that her Australian education airbrushed over the brutality of Indigenous dispossession extending from the colonial era into the 20th century.  So this myth about ‘no bloodshed’ on Australian soil is probably authentic for these two characters, and would seem anachronistic if it were otherwise.

The editorial dilemma, however, is that letting this statement stand perpetuates a myth which needs to be comprehensively demolished.  And I’m drawing attention to it because I’m not comfortable with that.

Michelle Wright is an award-winning author whose collection of short stories Fine, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and published in 2016.  She was awarded an Australia Council residency to complete the research for Small Acts of Defiance in Paris.

Other reviews are at The Unseen Library and at Mrs B’s Book Reviews.  Theresa Smith interviewed the author here.

PS There’s a YouTube video of Michelle Wright answering reader questions about the book here.

Author: Michelle Wright
Title: Small Acts of Defiance
Cover design: Nada Backovic
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760292652, pbk., 344 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. Yes I noticed that very real editorial dilemma when I read the novel. I thought that perhaps in a more ‘literary’ novel there might at that point have been (as in a movie) a switch of mode in which visions of Australian historical massacres were seen. Or there could even be a note in an appendix. Something outside the reach of the characters in the novel itself.

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    • Hi Carmel, after my initial Whoa! moment, I found myself wondering how differently it could have been handled. The French character is trying to convey the urgency of more effective action to someone whose homeland and way of life (she believes) hasn’t been impacted; it’s emphasising Lucie’s outsider status, and it’s also typical of the way people make assumptions about the history and cultures of other people’s countries. (My experience in Europe is that they know next-to-nothing about Australia, and the UK is not much better.)
      Yet, as I say, Lucie can’t set her straight in ways that are historically accurate and sensitive to Indigenous suffering, because (a) she wouldn’t have known that herself at that time and (b) a passionate argument is not the place for one person to start setting the historical record straight. What we see in that exchange is Lucie being reticent and humble and trying to defuse the situation while still holding her ground, and that’s authentic.
      Well, I’m not an editor and I don’t have the expertise to make suggestions, I can only see what the problem is! But yes, an author note at the back of the book to clarify things would be one way to do it.

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      • Yes Lisa, what you say is absolutely spot on. Writing historical fiction, particularly these days, can be quite challenging.

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        • I’m thinking of the protocols that came out a little while ago (and wondering where I put my printout!) … from memory, I don’t think it had any advice that’s useful in this situation.

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  2. I agree that it is completely historically accurate for an Australian at that time to say, There have been no wars on my soil. It is probably still being said.

    What I would like to do rather than read this novel is to reread my old Sartres and see for myself what consciousness there was of the Holocaust during the Occupation, what hints there were even.

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    • LOL Bill, you know you were never going to read this anyway because you object to historical fiction in principle.

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  3. Very tricky, and I think it needed to be highlighted somehow, perhaps in an afterword.

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  4. Well, it’s a lie that’s still being told so I can’t see that a character in a book from the 1940s would know any different.

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    • Yes, that’s right, and I’ve said so. But, IMO, it doesn’t help the situation to have it repeated in the novel without some kind of acknowledgement, in the Afterword if nowhere else.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. A note should be made in the book somewhere, whether an intro or afterword.

        Liked by 1 person


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