Arlette’s Story: A Virtual Tour

Yesterday we celebrated the release of Angela Barton’s debut novel from Ruby Fiction, Arlette’s Story, which tells the story of Arlette Blaise; a young woman living in the French countryside during the Occupation of WW2. Today on the blog, Angela takes us on a ‘tour’ of the area that inspired the location and shows us some of the sights Arlette might have seen along with some short extracts from the novel itself to really set the scene …

Hello everyone. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write a blog post about Arlette’s Story.

When I’m creating a place for my characters to live, I usually imagine somewhere that I know, and rename it. My protagonist, Arlette Blaise, is the daughter of a farmer living in rural France and I knew immediately that she would live a short distance away from this beautiful hilltop village in Charente. It’s called Aubeterre-sur-Dronne and it’s where I now live with my husband, Paul. I re-named the village, Montverre, in Arlette’s Story.

Narrow cobbled roads lead off from each corner, sweet-smelling linden trees perfume the air and small shops sit along its edges. As Arlette’s Story is set during WW2, I’ve changed the items being sold in these shops. I invented a clog maker, a haberdashery and a cobbler’s. Throughout my story, a lot of drama takes place in this square. It’s here that Arlette and her close friend, Francine, watched the Germans march into their village. It’s where she meets an old friend of her late-mother’s, not knowing what a huge role this lady would play in her life. It’s where Arlette witnesses the brutality of war. Seventy-five years ago, the Germans really did take over Aubeterre to live and work. Every morning when I wander down to the boulangerie to buy my baguette, I’m reminded of Arlette and her story.

 “Soldiers marched in rows of six. They were dressed in green field uniforms and wearing metal hats that reminded Arlette of Grandma Blaise’s mixing bowl. They looked almost comical; hardly how she’d expected murderers to look. Their faces were stern and impenetrable, but as they strutted past her position outside the clog maker’s, she noticed a few of the soldiers look furtively to one side. They snatched glances at the gathered villagers and the damp grey buildings that were to become their new homes. Like a drumbeat, the Germans stomped in rhythm, followed by soldiers on horseback.”

This is the church just up the hill from us in Aubeterre. I renamed it and placed it on the edge of the village because I needed there to be a cemetery where Arlette’s mother is buried. Tragically, someone else is laid to rest in my story. 

“A small group of people assembled outside St Pierre’s church, their heads bowed in hushed whispers. The sky was a canvas of blue and white smudges. It had rained overnight and the smell of damp earth and pleasantly pungent flowering raspberries hung in the air alongside the gathered throng’s anticipation.”

Arlette’s Story is also a book about family, friends, every day life, relationships and of course, love. Saul Epstein is my book’s hero. He’s a Jewish medical student who’s been prevented from training by the Nazis. He moved south to Montverre where he’d heard that farmhands were being hired.

“Arlette sat on the wall of the well and lowered the bucket that was fixed to a long chain. It was early evening, the time of day when the flowers’ scent was more potent. The farmyard was tranquil and Klara the dog slept in the shadow of the mulberry tree. Against the wall of the farmhouse leant a fig tree, its trunk looking as if it was slouching with weariness. The wide green foliage tapped repeatedly against the sitting room window in the breeze that blew from the river. At that moment in time, Arlette felt happy. She raised her face to the sinking sun and sighed audibly.

A short time later, the reason for her happiness strode out of the shadows of the barn pushing a squeaking wheelbarrow. Saul. His shirt was rolled up to his elbows and his top few buttons were undone, revealing a tanned and toned chest.”

There are several smaller arcs in Arlette’s Story but the climax takes place at Oradour-sur-Glane. It’s about an hour’s drive from us here, but I needed Arlette to be able to get there by horse and trap in an hour or so. (This is one of the things I love about writing. We can move towns, change names and forge relationships with a few clicks on the keyboard!)

Oradour was a small thriving town that had enjoyed a peaceful seclusion for most of the war. It had wonderful facilities: a tram system, schools, two hotels, a doctor’s surgery, a restaurant, a hairdresser, a butcher and baker. Nearly seven hundred people lived there. You can see some wonderful photographs taken before 10th June 1944 – the day the Nazis arrived on this website: http://www.oradour.info/images/catalog1.htm.

“Cycling at speed, they passed a metal sign welcoming them to Oradour-sur-Glane. With her chest heaving from exertion and her skirts billowing, Arlette was desperate to reach the tranquility of her grandmother’s house. They passed the church with its tall steeple and continued until the road opened up into a village green, bordered by neat railings. Dotted around the open space were mature chestnut trees and wooden poles that were linked by tram wires, looking like long empty washing lines.”

At midday on 10th June 1944, a convoy of trucks drove into Oradour. Two hundred Nazis climbed down and ordered all of the villagers onto the fairground. (A central grassy slope where a fair would visit each summer; although the villagers called it the fairground all year round.)

“Waiting in the centre of the village, Arlette saw townspeople converge from all directions at gunpoint. She was standing on Oradour’s fairground, a gently sloping hill of grass from where she could see in all directions. She watched while the elderly were hauled from their homes and clients were pushed out of the hairdressers with wet hair. The baker joined them, still covered in flour. Teachers led children by the hand and diners streamed out of restaurants. The carpenter was forced to leave his work, also the cobbler, the village cart-wright and the blacksmith. An elderly man struggled beneath the weight of his sick wife in his arms. The Hotel Avril and Hotel Milord’s guests were being ushered from the buildings by Nazis shouting orders.”

The impressive steepled church stands on the edge of the village next to the River Glane. The 10th June 1944 was a Saturday, but children were present from outlying villages because some were rehearsing for their First Holy Communion and others were attending a vaccination programme at school.

On the fairground, the Nazis separated the men from the women and children. The men were taken to several barns spread around the village and the women and children were ordered into the church. 

“Arlette didn’t let go of her grandmother’s hand despite the bumping and jostling from others. They were ordered deeper inside the church. The cool interior was a welcome relief from the fierce heat outside and many women and children settled themselves on the wooden benches. She helped her grandmother to sit on a stool beside the altar but as more women were herded inside, the crowd pushed Arlette a short way from the old lady. Helpless to stop the momentum, she was thrust to the opposite side of the altar.

A cough. A baby’s whimper. A child’s voice calling for maman. But still the women remained calm, their ears straining for any communication or sign of what was going to happen next.

Then it came.

Distant machine gun fire could be heard through the open church door. It continued for a long minute until it slowed. Then just occasional short bursts.

‘What are they firing at?’ someone whispered.

‘Perhaps they’re destroying something.’

‘The men…you don’t suppose…?’”

I will leave what happened next, here. A short summary of words cannot convey the feelings that I, and everyone who visits, are left with after visiting Oradour.

Charles de Gaulle ordered that the town should be left as it had been found after the Germans set fire to it and fled. It remains frozen in time as a reminder of the capability of man’s inhumanity to mankind. After seventy-five years the buildings are crumbling and family items and furniture are rotting and rusting. The first time I visited I felt an overwhelming compulsion to write a story from a survivor’s point of view, and in some small way, to help keep the memory alive. For those who read it, Arlette’s Story will be that reminder.

Here are photographs taken on my latest visit.

A typical street of crumbling houses.

The doctor’s car still stands where he parked it 75 years ago. He came back from his rounds and saw the village on the fairground. He climbed out of his car to see what was happening and was forced to join them by the Germans.

Oradour’s church. The steeple caved in during the fire.

The tramlines are overgrown and rusty.

One family’s Singer sewing machine. The majority of mothers made their children’s clothing. I gave Arlette’s grandmother a sewing machine in my book.

The fairground where hundreds of villages were herded.

Cars parked in the village’s petrol station and mechanic’s garage.

Tiles still decorate a family’s fire surround and a  saucepan still hangs above where once sat a grate.

Arlette’s Story is published by Ruby Fiction and available to purchase on all eBook platforms. Click the cover image above for purchasing options. 

For more information on Angela Barton:
Follow her on Twitter @AngeBarton
Check out her website: www.angelabarton.net