by Jenny Harrison with Evelyne Pothron
Courage and determination survive victorious against all odds
The Lives of Alice Pothron is the result of a chance encounter in 2009 between author Jenny Harrison and Evelyne Pothron. At the time, Evelyne – Alice and Emile Pothron’s daughter – was in search of an author to tell her parents’ amazing story.
Born in the very first years of the 20th century, Alice Guyonvernier and Emile Pothron both knew abject poverty as children. These early years, and the miserable years that Alice experienced when an aunt took her to America constitute what she thinks of as her first two lives.
The book opens in July 1938 with Alice and Emile, now proud holders of American passports, happily married and comfortably well off but regretfully childless, departing America by ship for a short holiday in France. They haven’t a care in the world. War is brewing in Europe but, incredibly, in America boxer Joe Louis’s victory over Max Schmeling and Howard Hughes’ around-the-world flight excite more interest than world affairs.
When the Pothrons arrive in France they find the country still in mourning for the losses of the Great War and in complete denial – there cannot possibly be another war.
This then, the years between 1927 when Alice met Emile in his hairdressing salon and his call-up to serve the country of his birth in September 1939, is Alice’s third life – a worry-free time of happiness and love. This comfortable period has cocooned Alice from real life. She has become Americanised, no longer French in her view of the world, her clothes or her way of speaking. With the outbreak of war and Emile serving in a military medical unit, she is about to become an alien in the country of her birth.
In The Lives of Alice Pothron, Harrison enriches the telling of Alice and Emile’s stories (based on the recollections of their only daughter, Evelyne) with pertinent details of the bigger picture of France’s situation and mind-set prior to the outbreak of war and conditions for ordinary civilians during the war. Added to the mix is the Pothrons’ beloved dog that has come with them from America and their much longed-for daughter, born in June 1939.
The threads of the story are an account of constant danger, hardship and heartbreak, and of amazing strength, ingenuity and courage. Alice’s need to protect Evelyne at all costs see her learning to live once again in poverty, drawing water from the well, cooking on a wood stove and coping with rationing.
Harrison’s account of events in Alice and Emile’s lives after they are separated by war is both bleak and grim, but at the same time there are moments of humour. Their almost parallel paths as fugitives heading south into unoccupied France and eventual safety are an inspiring tribute to the Resistance workers who risked all to help them: guiding them, feeding them their own precious food, providing a dry bed and then handing them on like a parcel to the next link in the clandestine chain.
As Alice comments …it always seems to be winter… in this book. Harrison has succeeded, through dwelling on the long, bitterly cold winters in the north of France, and beautiful prose, to convey the cruelty of the war’s impact on ordinary people …a blue-fingered morning, cloudless with a chill that stubbornly hung on the shirt tails of the night.
The Lives of Alice Pothron does have a happy ending (as mentioned in the back-cover blurb) and it is a story driven by unfaltering love, but it sensitively recounts a time in our history without a trace of romanticism. I found the book very thought provoking and often found myself thinking how lucky we are. My only disappointment with The Lives of Alice Pothron is that I would have liked to know, even briefly, how life turned out for Alice, Emile and Evelyne when they returned to America in 1942.
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