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May 2024

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

by Tara Ison

Ig Publishing, 286 pp.

Reviewed by Nancy Ludmerer

Danielle, the Parisian Jewish girl at the heart of Tara Ison’s wrenching novel of WWII France, At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, is 12 years old. It’s March 1941 and her father, a professor, has been murdered near the university by a crowd yelling Sale Juif. Or in English, Dirty Jew. She and her mother escape Paris, making a treacherous and exhausting journey to an occupied region of rural France. Danielle’s mother arranges to leave her with a devout Catholic family in the village of La Perrine, while she herself goes underground (leaving Danielle to wonder what that means), but promising to return. From that moment on, Danielle must take a new name and identity, posing as the couple’s orphaned niece, “Marie-Jeanne.” The book opens with a school essay she writes introducing her fictional self:

My parents named me for the Blessed Virgin, and also for Saint Jeanne d’Arc, the young girl who had short hair and saved France . . . Maman and Papa died last year in a tragic car accident . . . bringing toys to poor orphans at the convent. Now I live here in the country… with tante Berthe, tonton Claude, and cousin Luc . . . The happiest part of the week is Sundays when it’s holy and I go to church.  I always pray first for our dear leader, Marshal Petain, who is saving France for us.

Danielle cherishes her life before the war, and longs for Claire, her Christian best friend back in Paris with whom she holds imaginary one-sided conversations. She dreams that when the war ends, they will go to America together and become famous movie actresses.

You haven’t forgotten me, have you? Because they can’t stop me from remembering you.  Or from being the real me inside my own head. . . I know I can’t ever really disappear. I know inside forever I’ll always be Danielle.

Ison’s prose is riveting. Her beautifully executed stream-of-consciousness passages help us experience viscerally the upheaval that Danielle undergoes, yet the writing remains clear and multi-layered. Without wavering from Danielle’s point of view, Ison explores the violence of the political landscape and the deceptions that divide families and communities.

Danielle recalls her life in Paris before the German occupation as idyllic. Her Jewish family is wholly secular, and her maternal grandparents are her sole repository of Jewish culture, a culture Danielle takes for granted along with satiny sheets, shopping at Galleries Lafayette, and dinners out. Still, what she loved best was the simple pleasure of Sunday afternoon walks with her father when they shared hot chocolate and wafer cookies. Here’s Danielle recalling how they would pause on the Pont Neuf and her father would point out the changing colors of the sky:

Look at all the shadings . . .  from silvery lemon, over there, to that deep sapphire, look how it’s turning to ink… We’re ‘entre chien et loup’ at this hour. Now look carefully, and you show me the moment when day changes to night, when the light turns to dark.

The attentive reader will recognize the phrase entre chien et loup (literally, between dog and wolf – a French expression meaning twilight or dusk) from the book’s epigraph. In response to her father’s question, Danielle would stare at the sky but “she could never see exactly when the shift happened, when the dog became the wolf.” As readers, we are in the same quandary (when does dog become wolf?) which Ison takes up with subtlety and beauty. We witness Danielle’s gradual change from her past self into a Marie-Jeanne she could never have imagined: a devout Catholic, who becomes increasingly fascist and even anti-Semitic as her story unfolds. This transformation occurs in a series of scenes in which the darkness gets deeper and more dangerous. The dog becoming wolf isn’t simply a metaphor for the horrors of the war— first in Paris, and then in La Perrine. Rather, it is a depiction of what is happening inside Danielle. While some of the change is for the good, as she shares in and appreciates her new family’s often grueling farmwork and community values, the ultimate effect of her transformation is catastrophic—for her friends, her new family, and her fragile sense of self.

For example: one of Danielle’s early moments of transformation happens in church, when, having practiced the words that accompany the sacrament, she first takes communion. The priest’s sermon is about how one must not “receive Jesus with a filthy soul” but trust in God completely. She rises to receive the communion wafer but her legs wobble and she tries to reassure herself.

 . . .trust God. But which God? She stumbles again . . . How can she do this if she and Marie-Jeanne have two different Gods?  Which God understands her? . . . But there’s only one God, isn’t there? And she can’t separate her blood, divide herself in parts, like a country, like a raspberry tart . . .

It is as if, in taking the sacrament, Danielle becomes Marie-Jeanne, with a father and blessed virgin mother who – unlike her own parents – will never leave her. In the course of the book, Danielle’s identification with “Marie-Jeanne” grows deeper. When her uncle explains,

We have to make distinctions. It isn’t the French Jews to worry about, the ones who have been here generations. I fought side by side with French Jews in the Great War, some of them were very brave. Good patriots. ‘Your grandfather,’ he says to Danielle, pointing his sausage finger at her, ‘he was a good man, child. An officer. A fine soldier. You can be proud of him.’

Marie-Jeanne’s grandfather wasn’t a Jew, she thinks, startled and upset to hear her uncle talking about “some other girl’s grandfather.” By then, six months after her arrival in La Perrine, she is fully integrated into her new Catholic family and has begun to embrace their political views. In tense scenes of menace and manipulation, a charming young Frenchman seeks to turn Danielle into an informer. The reader hopes she will not succumb but fears she will. In the emotionally charged final chapter, we see what happens when Danielle's original promise to herself, that "inside" she will "always be Danielle" is truly tested.

At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf is that rare novel that marries beautiful prose with thrilling suspense, both a page-turner and a book that will break your heart.

Nancy Ludmerer is the author of Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, winner of Snake Nation Press’s annual fiction prize, and Sarra Copia: A Locked-in Life, a novella set in 17th century Venice. Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, New Orleans Review, Litro, Orca Lit, North American Review, the Saturday Evening Post, Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022, and many other publications. She practiced law for many years before turning to fiction-writing full-time and while in law school, was a National Endowment of the Arts fellow in arts administration. Her non-fiction has appeared in The American Lawyer, Green Mountains Review, Literal Latte, and Vogue, and was cited in Best American Essays 2014. She lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and ten-year-old cat, Nova.




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