Big Picture

Cover for Catherine's War by Julia BilletCatherine’s War

written by Julia Billet; translated from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger; 
illustrated by Claire Fauvel

In this captivating graphic novel, a fictionalization of the peripatetic experiences of Billet’s mother in World War II France, teenager Rachel Cohen has been enrolled for four months at the Sèvres School. Did her parents realize she needed a more challenging academic environment? Or did they sense the trials ahead for Jewish families in Paris? Regardless, Rachel thrives at Sèvres under the progressive management of the headmistress, nicknamed Seagull, and her husband, Penguin. She’s made close friends, and Penguin has passed to her his knowledge and enthusiasm for photography, lending her a Rolleiflex camera and teaching her the rudiments of darkroom processing.

As the Nazi grip tightens and officials watch the boarding schools on their radar, the Sèvres staff springs into action to remove their Jewish students to safer locations. The children are given false papers with new names, and drilled—sometimes with a necessary degree of harshness—on responding correctly to the use of these names. Rachel becomes Catherine Colin, and not a moment too soon, as a woman whisks her and younger classmate to a Catholic convent school in Riom. The nuns perpetuate the deception, even to the point of including the Jewish children in reception of the sacraments, a practice the now-Catherine accepts as strategic, if foreign and a bit repulsive. The Rolleiflex comes to her aid, and she discovers that observing her situation and surroundings through a viewfinder gives her a welcome degree of distance. It also leads her to the darkroom of Étienne, a young man excused from military duty due to a missing leg, who runs his family photography business. Romance with Étienne blossoms, but a misguided comment catches Nazi attention, and Rachel and her Jewish classmates are again on the move. There will be a farm in Limoges, an orphanage in the Pyrénees, and the home of a resistance fighter deep in the forest, before Paris is liberated and Rachel, now a talented young woman, returns to a changed Paris, a reunion with Étienne, and, of equal importance, an audience receptive to the wartime photographs she releases in a gallery showing.

Photography’s potency as both talent and savior in Rachel’s life is taken seriously here. Within the text, Rachel revels in discussions with Étienne about their common art (he’s a product of the portrait studio, with aspirations toward landscape photography, while she favors candids and patiently waits for everyday acts of grace to find her lens), and reflects on the development of her skills. Fauvel’s ink and watercolor artwork, though, draws the novel’s viewers into Rachel’s experiences by situating them frequently over the Rolleiflex viewfinder and allowing them to join the protagonist in her selection and framing of each subject. Although it’s clear Rachel benefits emotionally from the protective shielding the camera affords, the gratitude, sorrow, affection, and regret that infuse the moment of each shutter click bleed through, and the prints that Rachel hope to share with the subjects are precious gifts.

The camera culture in which smartphone-enabled YA readers conduct their lives means young people will easily consider and discuss Rachel’s photography experience alongside their own. There are evident contrasts with the Rolleiflex: how, for example, might the lateral flip of its viewfinder image affect the taker’s perception and product? How does the camera’s weight affect agility and motion? How do people react to a young woman wearing a camera? However, it will be questions common to all photographers that will linger: is this a hobby or a commitment? What truths can be captured in composed or on-the-fly shots? Does a camera bring the taker closer to or further from the subject? And what are possible roles for citizen photographers present in moments of war, crime, or civil unrest? Closing notes on Sèvres, a spread of photographs taken there, a map of Rachel/Catherine’s refuges, and a reference to Billet’s prose novel, also entitled Catherine’s War, are included.

—Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Cover illustration by Claire Fauvel from Catherine’s War copyright © 2020 and reproduced by permission of HarperCollins.