In the Fall They Leave: A Novel of the First World War
by Joanna Higgins

Published: 2023-02-21T00:0
Paperback : 300 pages
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"A powerful and moving novel, this is very hard to lay aside. The story and its characters remain in the mind and imagination for a long time."--Historical Novel Society

After failing at a prestigious music Académie, nineteen-year-old Marie-Thérèse is finally meeting with success at ...

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"A powerful and moving novel, this is very hard to lay aside. The story and its characters remain in the mind and imagination for a long time."--Historical Novel Society

After failing at a prestigious music Académie, nineteen-year-old Marie-Thérèse is finally meeting with success at a Brussels nursing school. But in August 1914, just as her third and final year begins, German armies invade Belgium, swiftly overcome the Allies, and press on toward France, leaving behind an occupying force. This upends everything in Brussels and in Marie-Thérèse’s world. There are reports of ongoing brutalities which fuel burgeoning resentment on the part of the citizenry. Although the occupiers must be treated with respect, nothing prevents citizens from venting their anger on fellow citizens of German descent, including Marie-Thérèse’s family. At the clinic and nursing school, a newly installed director orders students and staff to spy on one another. In this perilous environment, the matron of the school—a character based on the historical Edith Cavell—makes a fateful decision. Soon, so does Marie-Thérèse. Both have far-reaching consequences. In the Fall They Leave is a wartime story of moral courage, resilience, and endurance.

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Brussels, Belgium

Newsboys charge the platform, their cries a racket of startled birds. Allemand Ultimatum . . . Alle-mand Ulti-matum . . . Alle-mand . . . Alle-mand Ulti ma tum— Papers flap above their heads, explosions of white wings. Disembarking passengers press forward. Clots form. Movement stalls.

“What is it, monsieur?” Marie-Thérèse all but shouts.

The elderly man is a little deaf. He’s also laconic to a legendary degree. “L’Allemagne encore.” His eyes are on the arrivals from Ostend.

Germany again. Fragments of an old history lesson rise murkily through layers of other old lessons. The Franco-Prussian War—the cause of which does not rise murkily. She recalls, though, that just over a month ago, a young Serb shot the Archduke of Austria and his wife Sophie while they were in an open car on their way to visit a hospital in the Yugoslavian capital of Sarajevo. Both died. An event sending the Brussels newsboys flying then, too, shrieking and flapping their papers. And ever since, newspapers have been carrying predictions of another war, one potentially greater than any previously fought.

“Does it have anything to do with us? Aren’t we neutral?”

“Efficacité.” Extending his right arm, he slashes at the air.

“Do you mean their efficiency?”

He gives a curt nod.

“So, maybe she decided to stay in England. I don’t know if I—”

The old man surges forward, waving his cap, Marie-Thérèse in his wake. Approaching a tall woman in cream-colored linen, he holds his cap over his heart and bows.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Wojtasczek,” she responds and, turning to Marie-Thérèse, “Mademoiselle Hulbert. You came too. How nice.”

Trained in observation, Marie-Thérèse detects an incipient frown held in check. She detects withheld criticism—and a miasma of disapproval. You came too when you might have been doing something useful, such as studying or even taking the dogs for their walk? How nice.

“I had some free time and I. . .so I asked the gardener. . .but I should not have presumed…Pardonnez-moi, Matrone, s’il vous plaît.”

“No, no, it’s fine.”

They retrieve the matron’s trunk from a baggage trolley and then in breezy sunlight on the Place Rogier, the gardener waits in line to buy a newspaper. When the matron, breaking an awkward silence, asks about her two dogs, Marie-Thérèse, still shaken, rattles off their latest exploits.

“I’m glad they’re well.”

In the backseat of the school’s Landaulet, the matron raises her newspaper. Marie-Thérèse wishes she had one—to hide behind. Why in the world had she asked to go along to the station? True, she was excited to begin her third and final year at the nursing school. True, she’d been free that morning, and a thunderstorm at dawn had swept through, leaving behind glitter and balmy warmth, and she’d felt some altogether uncharacteristic surge of euphoria. And further true, she worshipped the woman and was anxious to see her again, given all the war rumblings. And so, voilà, yet another mistake.

How ironic. She’d failed at her piano studies because she hadn’t been impulsive enough. Your playing is too stiff, mademoiselle. Take more risks. But risk-taking meant mistakes, no? They were kind enough and tried to explain—and demonstrate. All of it lost in the pulsing roar beating in her ears.

She pries a speck of lint from her gabardine skirt. Mistakes—she hates them. And the foreboding they bring on.

Turning to the window, she blinks away gathering tears. The boulevard, strangely, has become a parade route of sorts. Automobiles, horse carts, trams, even bicycles trimmed with flowers and ribbons. Lampposts, too, and horses’ bridles. Little girls wear crowns of marigolds. A bicyclist, just then passing the slower-moving Landaulet, is carrying two strings of onions, each woven with yellow and red ribbons. Church bells clang at every block. Newsboys chant at every corner. Along sidewalks people are embracing or gesticulating in apparent argument. Belgian flags drape windowsills, balconies, and shop fronts, their vertical red, yellow, and black bars puffed and rippling like sails. And sheets of newsprint are skidding along sidewalks into wet gutters.

Ribbons, flags, people, newspapers, traffic— Everything that day, August 1, 1914, in motion.

Why are people celebrating?

She’s afraid to ask. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1 After failing at the music Académie, Marie-Thérèse decides to become a student of nursing. Why do you think she does so?

2 What effect does this decision have on Marie-Thérèse’s mother, Madame Hulbert? Do you think that Madame Hulbert’s arguments and feelings have validity? Why or why not.

3 Soon after the German occupation of Brussels, the new director of the clinic and nursing school asks the staff and students to spy on the matron and clinic and report anything that appears suspicious. Why does Marie-Thérèse give her word to do so? What compels her to go back on her word? Do you agree with her—or not?

4 The matron tells Marie-Thérèse that she will have to practice deception on a daily basis. Looking back at yourself at nineteen, how do you think you would respond to such words—and circumstances?

5 What leads Marie-Thérèse to resume her piano studies at the end of the novel? What has contributed to her growth as a pianist? Do you think she should give up nursing and continue exclusively with the piano?

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