A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead strives to shed light on the occupation of France by Germany during World War II and the rise of the French Resistance, particularly the role of women within the resistance.  Of the 230 women who were arrested and sent to Auschwitz in Poland, less than 50 survived, and seven were alive when Moorehead began researching and writing this account of their story.  Impeccably well researched, the book takes readers behind the scenes of the French Resistance, and in many ways the level of detail presented can be overwhelming, especially for those not well acquainted with the ins and outs of the time period.  However, this iteration of facts, times, places, and events serves to demonstrate just how confusing a time the German occupation of France was for those who lived it and sought to overcome it.

“In a rising mood of hostility and mockery, they went around repeating their favourite jokes.  ‘Collaborate with the Germans?’ went one.  ‘Think of Voltaire . . . A true Aryan must be blond like Hitler, slender like Goring, tall like Goebbels, young like Petain, and honest like Laval.’  Another started with the question:  ‘Do you know what happened?’ At 9.20, a Jew killed a German soldier, opened his breast and ate his heart!  Impossible!  For three reasons:  Germans have no hearts.  Jews don’t eat pork.  And at 9.20 everyone is listening to the BBC.'” (page 34 ARC)

Clearly, Moorehead’s forte is in biography and she is deft at handling facts and ensuring that they are well explained in accordance with interrelated events and moments in time, but the text is often dry and tough to remain engaged in.  However, even among these facts, there are pockets of emotion where mothers decide to ship their children to foster families or relatives outside Paris so that they can continue working with the Resistance without endangering the lives of their children.  Still others opt to include their children in the fight to restore a free France.  Moorehead fills in some of the history and familial background in for certain women, but in a way, this litany of facts detracts from the ability of the reader to connect more emotionally to these women.

“Half a litre of black coffee in the morning watery soup at midday, 300 grams of bread — if they were lucky — with either a scrape of margarine, a bit of sausage, cheese or jam at night, was not enough to stop the women’s bodies shrinking and feeding on themselves, the fat disappearing first and then the muscles.  The food never varied.”  (page 203 ARC)

It is not until part two that some readers will become truly engaged in the story as the women are tortured and learn to cope with their sparse surroundings at Auschwitz.  The bravery and solidarity of these women is phenomenal.  Unless readers are willing to wade through the political ins and outs of the early French Resistance and occupation of France and the French police’s collaboration with German occupiers, they may not make it to the more engaging and heart wrenching parts of the story.  Moorehead has chosen to tell a true story and to ensure that those who were present have their say in how that story is told, but it may have served better for the story to focus on just a few of the women from the beginning, allowing them to be the face of the others’ struggles.

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead is a tale of survival that needs to be told and remembered.  As one of the women from the resistance said after having survived cancer longer than expected, “Surviving is something that she is very good at.”  (page 6 ARC)


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About the Author:

The author of numerous biographies and works of history, including Gellhorn and Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead has also written for The Telegraph, The Times, and The Independent. The cofounder of a legal advice center for asylum seekers from Africa, she divides her time between England and Italy.


This is my 74th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


  1. Sounds like we had similar thoughts on this book. The second part is really engaging and should have been the focus. It was hard to keep track of the women in the beginning, especially since the author would jump around and provide other historical details at the same time. Still very interesting, though. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • Yeah there was a lot of facts in the first part of the book, and while I liked those facts, I think it could have been executed in a more engaging way.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I do have a copy, but just not sure when I’ll get to read it. Happy reading in this busy month.

  3. I saw Kathy’s comments that there are plaques memorializing the Resistance in France. I would love to see that!

    This seems like such an important story to tell. I wonder if this book will be adapted in to a screen play?

  4. I do hope people will stick with this one and get to read the 2nd part of the book – it sounds like that is where the heart of the story really is.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, thorough review Serena.

  5. I had a little trouble with this book, especially the first part. It was just too many women for me to keep straight, which became frustrating.

  6. I too found the first part dry but like you, was just gripped come the second part. An amazing, crucial story.

    • I liked the second part, but the first part was just so convoluted and dry. I really think it could have been done differently.

  7. Thank you so very much for this insightful review. i think I have this one requested from my library to read next year. I’ll remember what you wrote about the politics and stick with the story til the end.

  8. Sounds excellent – I have read one of Caroline Moorhead’s biographies but have never heard of this book – thanks for recommending.


  9. I was hoping to read this but not so sure I will now. I would really like to learn more about the Resistance but was hoping the story would be both informative and riveting. I’ll have to give it some thought.

  10. When we lived in France, it always gave me goosebumps when I saw plaques memorializing the Resistance, so I would be interested in that aspect of the story. I’m disappointed to see parts of the book are dry.

    • I really wanted to love this one since I wanted to learn about the French Resistance, but I wasn’t emotionally connected to the women until they got to the concentration camp….the facts were just so rapidly fired and it wasn’t told in a way that could hold my full attention.


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