Innocence in an Adult World

A coming-of-age story that pays tribute to the heroic and humane

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

`LE PETIT GARCON" is a novel about a boy growing up in a small town in Vichy, France at the time of the Nazi occupation. The author, Philippe Labro, is a filmmaker, former journalist, and current program director for a French radio network, who has also written several previous novels, including "The Foreign Student" (1988) - a loosely based account of his experiences as an exchange student in the United States.

Narrated in the style of a memoir, "Le Petit Garcon" is a charmingly old-fashioned, unabashedly poignant book that wears its heart on its sleeve. Simple, straightforward, and touching enough to appeal to a wide readership, it is also graceful, polished, and reflective enough to elicit critical esteem.

The story unfolds in an unspoiled rural corner of southwestern France, where the narrator, his six older brothers and sisters, and their parents lead an idyllic life in a large house and farm some distance from the village. At first, we see only the carefree and secure little world of a happy childhood: the games and standing jokes of a large family; the children's funny nicknames for their teachers; their comic misapprehensions and oddly perceptive insights about their neighbors; the special album they keep to record their impressions of the world around them. But before long, we, like the children, are made aware of happenings in the larger world that will soon impinge on their own.

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Their father, a distinguished lawyer and a man of keen, pessimistic political foresight, decided to move his family here from Paris, which has already fallen into German hands as the story begins. Here, in the beautiful, remote countryside where he grew up, the father hopes to raise his children in safety and to instill in them the values he holds dear.

While the little boy dreams of being a hero, like the characters in the books he has read, the real hero of the book turns out to be his father, who all the while has been sheltering Jewish refugees at great risk to himself and to the family of whom he is so protective. Gradually and naturally, the children are let into the secret, and this knowledge helps form their characters.

The children's mother is a sweet, gentle woman 18 years younger than her husband. Beneath her still-girlish exterior, however, she is a strong woman whose deep capacity for love sustains her family and whose quiet conviction enables her to stand up to the Germans, who come to occupy the town in November of 1942.

The mother is an orphan: "Father sometimes liked to think that he was taking the place of the father his wife had never had...." But, as her son comes to realize, her ability to survive a shattered childhood is evident in the "maternal solicitude" she shows for husband and children alike.

The novel derives a curious power from the contrast between the immense importance of the adult values that the children learn from their parents and the simplicity of the ways and words used to convey these values.

In one scene, for example, the children ask their father what intolerance is. "It's when some people refuse to let others have any opinions different from their own, or when they hate people with a different color skin. And when they're ready to kill them because of it," he replies. Charles De Gaulle he characterizes as a man "able to say no when everyone else was saying yes." Recognizing traitors and "Collabos" is not easy, he admits, but advises them to look out for people with "shifty eyes." As for va lues themselves, what they are, he reaches out his arms and points to the rows upon rows of bookshelves in his beloved library.

These simple, almost banal-seeming words and gestures have meaning, as we see, because the children have been learning about values all the while from the daily example of their parents' actions. The father's explanations merely clarify and underline what the children have already come to know through their own experience.

With seeming effortlessness, Labro accomplishes the rather difficult task of portraying both the child's innocent view of the world and the more experienced and informed outlook of the man that the child became. And then, there are moments when the true moral significance of events is plain enough for even the most naive to understand, as when the first contingent of German SS men marches into the little town:

"These men were clad in black, with silver buttons, braid, and insignia, and their masklike faces, with their fixed stares, made the [regular German] soldiers who had preceded them seem almost debonair.... And the sight of a little white death's-head framed by two bleached bones, embroidered on the black background of a fluttering pennant attached to the front windshield of the lead vehicle, confirmed the vague impression that in this land of wine and rugby, of plums and grapes, peaches and corn, veal an d poultry, chestnuts and mushrooms, one of those decisive moments had just occurred, with all its overbearing insolence, when life - as it has been understood until then - changes meaning, cast in a new light by the sudden flickering of flames."

For all its considerable charms and its very moving blend of humor and seriousness, there is a slight touch of sentimentality about this novel that some readers may find a little cloying. But it's difficult for a child to pay tribute to the heroic and humane qualities of his or her parents without the risk of sounding sentimental at times, and the voice that narrates this novel is both beguiling and sincere enough to strike a responsive chord and help readers reenter a time and place where the meaning of

right and wrong shone forth with unmistakable clarity.

MAGIC WORDS To evoke the time I'm talking about, I take pleasure in rediscovering - and this recovery must be effortless - the vocabulary of that French poet and troubadour who throughout all his live knew how to use simple, old-fashioned words, once filled with magic. Words that today are drained of their life and meaning, set aside on the shelf, once used to be strong and straight to the point, as clear as the sky over rooftops, as pure as young love, as direct as a mailman streaking across fields on his bicycle. -From 'Le Petit Garcon'

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