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Book Reviews: One Day in Oradour, Helen Watts

Book Reviews: One Day in Oradour, Helen Watts
One Day in Oradour by Helen Watts
Published by A&C Black Childrens & Educational on 9 May 2013
Format: Paperback

On a hot summer afternoon in 1944, SS troops wiped out an entire French village. 644 men, women and children died that day. Just one child survived. This book tells the story of what happened in Oradour, and imagines what drove both the SS officer who ordered the massacre, and the seven-year-old boy who escaped it. Powerful, moving and almost unbearably tense, this book weaves the truth about what happened to the people in Oradour into a powerful fictional story centred on two characters: the plucky, inspirational seven-year-old Alfred Fournier, refugee and resident of Oradour, and the hot-headed, power-hungry SS commander who shattered his world and changed his life for ever, Major Gustav Dietrich. As their two worlds collide, we gain a fascinating insight into the extremes and contradictions of human behaviour and emotion. With a twist in the tale, this is a story which leaves the reader surprised, inspired and profoundly moved.



Star rating: * * * * * 5 out of 5

On Saturday 10th June 1944 Gustav Dietrich, an SS Commander, ordered the town of Oradour to be surrounded and all its citizens to be rounded up, nearly all of those people were killed. One Day in Oradour depicts the massacre at Oradour and the built up through the eyes of the only surviving child and the German Commander who ordered the attack. The book provides an insight in to both the highs and lows of human behaviour as the residents of Oradour fight for survival against what can only be described as a brutal slaughter of innocents in an attempt to seek revenge and gain the approval of superiors.


The book is very well written and gives a long-lasting impression on all who read it and, despite the topic, is suitable for adults and children alike. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and thought that Helen Watts’ unique twist of showing it through the eyes of a child made it feel more human than the clinical view you receive from the strictly neutral history books I have previously read. I highly encourage anyone interested in history to read it!


Star rating: * * * * 4 out of 5

One Day in Oradour by Helen Watts does one thing exceedingly well. It takes you by the hand, and lets you walk along with the characters, no matter what is happening.

We whine along with one of the protagonists, Alfred. about vaccinations, and long for forgiveness from mum when he loses track of time and comes home too late. By neglecting any reminders of the Nazi occupation of France in Alfred’s day to day life, we have no impending dread; a feeling that most children reading might not relate to as readily. With no separating between what we, the audience are meant to experience, and they, the characters do, dramatic irony and tension are eschewed in favour of allowing the audience to imagine themselves right there with the characters.

Events before, during, and after the atrocity are all equally matter of fact and grounded, without being graphic. One Day in Oradour neither glorifies nor dramatizes the violence. There is no transition from pastoral daily life to nightmare, no literary flare or framing: it’s all real. There is no sense of foreboding we are meant to feel but the characters do not. I can’t think of a book or movie that even tries to do this for another disaster, massacre, or terrorist attack.

At the beginning of the novel, we’re treated to several realistic and fascinating run ins between the French resistance and the occupying Nazis: an important Nazi General is captured, and a less important Nazi soldier escapes to tell the tale. Both of their chapters are relatable and give you a firm grounding in their immediate circumstances. It’s a nice change that these are not stormtroopers that you are meant to boo and throw popcorn at.

But outside of these scenes, there’s no great sense of threat, for either side. When moving around between cities, or even between buildings and vehicles, the Nazis seem calm and in control. They seem to know where the French resistance is not, even if they don’t know where they are. There isn’t much sense that anyone else of them will be captured, or that they have to worry about crossing any bridges, or going around any blind turns.

Aside from a desire to retrieve their captured General, all we’re left with to explain events is the fact that the antagonist, Dietrich, had a deep seated need to prove himself, due to his emotionally absent father. At first, this motivation didn’t bother me. I’ve seen it before, sure, but who can’t relate to wanting daddy to notice the awesomely cool thing we just did? But without the context of fear, frustration, and paranoia on the part of the Nazis, the only explanation for why and how an atrocity happened seems to boil down to: one man with daddy issues wanted to prove himself.

The greatness of One Day in Oradour doesn’t lie in the why and how, though, but in the what. There is no foreshadowing, just as there is no foreshadowing in real life. There is no looming thundercloud ready to strike lightning. There is no theatrical gore or dramatic lens flare. There is no transition from idyllic hamlet life to horrific nightmare: it merely goes from stepping through daily life to stepping through the real events that happened. It is impossible to imagine that this is something that could only happen to other people, because it happens to you, as you read along.

And that is something we could all do with more of.