A Jewish Girl’s Slow Transformation into An Anti-Semite in WWII France
Tara Ison’s novel, "At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf," follows Danielle as she assumes the identity of a French Catholic girl
“entre chien et loup”
—French expression: “between dog and wolf,” i.e, twilight or dusk
So opens Tara Ison’s newest novel, At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, set in WWII France throughout the time of the French collaboration with Nazi Germany. The book follows the slow, horrifying transformation of Danielle, a twelve-year-old Jew in hiding with a Catholic family in the rural farming town of La Perrine. Over the years of the war, Danielle assumes the false identity of a French Catholic girl named Marie-Jeanne, embracing her new life so entirely that she loses hold of what’s real and what’s pretend, forced to live in the liminal space, the twilight, between two identities until her former self is all but consumed. By the end of the book—and the end of the war—Danielle is a devout Catholic and anti-Semite with fascist ideals that betray the very people she belongs to.
At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf not only examines the calculated ease with which evil spreads and the ways propaganda perpetuates self-sabotage, but it acts as a timely warning in the midst of a global resurgence of fascist rhetoric and glorification of nationalism. Danielle is a character you cling to, even when it makes you sick, and this book is a harrowing reminder of how swiftly we can rationalize our own evil.
“Maybe that’s the real reason for Confession,” Danielle thinks to herself in the final pages of the book. “Not for God, or priest, or anyone, to bless or forgive you, wash away your sins. Maybe they don’t ever wash away or disappear. But having to put yourself into words means you have to hear yourself. Look at yourself. Make yourself and who you are real.”
Rachel Reeher: A pillar of the book is the process of performance becoming belief. At such a young and malleable age, Danielle, a Jewish girl, has to perform a level of anti-Semitism throughout WWII in order to stay alive. Can you talk about self-harming ideologies as an engine for the story?
Tara Ison: Anyone forced to live under an assumed identity eventually struggles with this, especially when the stakes are life and death. Danielle is twelve when the war starts, a very precarious period of adolescence—the sense of self and identity are still forming, fragile. At the same time, she’s a somewhat bratty twelve-year-old, and when she’s first put in this situation, she has a naive arrogance that many adolescents have. She thinks she can handle it. She looks at it like a game of pretend, like she’s practicing for her future as an actress. But as the story goes along, she makes mistakes, she realizes she has to commit to this role, to take it seriously.
Initially, she’s thrust into the world of a French Catholic family who have varying perspectives on the war. Her fake uncle and fake cousin believe that “foreign Jews,” or Jews who aren’t of French ancestry perhaps should be “returned to their homes.” They don’t see it as being taken away to be exterminated, per say, but there is an anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic feeling in the house. The person she’s closest to, her fake aunt, Berthe, is what I’d call casually anti-Semitic—we’re all children under God, they’re our brothers and sisters, but of course, they’re different from us.
Danielle is able to brush that off for a time, but gradually she has to start transforming her own ideas in order to reconcile them in her mind. She tells herself they’re talking about other Jews, not her. It doesn’t take long for her own othering of Jews to begin. She knows she’s Jewish, but she’s begun the process of categorizing. There are the foreign Jews—the immigrant Jews who are taking jobs—and then there are French Jews, like her, the harmless ones. Once she starts down that path, the effects of it are insidious. The internalized anti-Semitism takes hold because it feels like a path to safety, to survival.
It’s like holding a mirror to the French collaboration with Germany. France felt that choice was the only path to surviving as a country. For Danielle, performing anti-Semitism and later embracing it becomes her path to security. By then it’s too late.
RR: There’s the tension between war and childhood, and the question of whether they can coexist. Danielle tries to remove all the childlike parts of herself, in order to be strong, to be an adult, to be capable. What was your approach to that dichotomy?
TI: As Danielle settles into her false identity, the fear of making a mistake ceases to be a concern. It’s not a false identity for her anymore, there isn’t a mistake she can make because she really is this new person, this Marie-Jeanne, now. Responsibility becomes something entirely different for her in light of this transformation. She becomes a devout Catholic and starts to internalize the stories of the saint and heroine, Joan of Arc, starts to believe that not only does she, Marie-Jeanne, have a responsibility to save herself and her town, but in many ways to save her country, just like Joan of Arc.
Danielle’s responsibility is also invoked by Vichy propaganda. They were very clever at manipulating their children. Brainwashing, indoctrinating. They knew the children of today could be the fascists of tomorrow, and they wanted to instill in a young generation that responsibility to the state. To the point of self-denial, self-destructiveness even. Danielle buys into the message that she has a duty, an obligation as a young woman, to contribute to the regeneration of a new France.
Finally, there’s the responsibility to her new family. She truly bonds with her fake aunt and uncle and she even grows to love them. The war continues and the scarcity grows—food is harder and harder to find, survival becomes increasingly difficult. This family took her in when she needed them, and as she matures, she feels it’s her responsibility to give back.
There’s a paradox—she goes from being a bratty twelve-year-old to, in many ways, being a selfless, caring, responsible young adult, only it’s at the cost of so much.
RR: At one point the narrative even says, “…but why did God punish them for her sins, make them suffer, all those innocent people? …why did he choose to save her?” Is it an inherently human tendency to place that kind of responsibility or blame on the individual? Is that line of thinking innately tied to religion?
TI: That moment happens late in the novel, when Danielle’s commitment to her new identity finally cracks and she’s forced to confront a connection with the people she’s betrayed and rejected. It’s survivor’s guilt, and the question she’s asking can be either a secular question or a question of faith.
It’s easy to ask yourself why have I been lucky enough to have this job, house, resource, privilege, etc., when others don’t? For those committed to a faith, that question gets asked directly of God. It’s a short step from those questions of God to feeling a sense of responsibility yourself. If You’ve blessed me with life and survival when so many have died, it must be because I have a purpose. There is something You want me to do. Danielle doesn’t know what it is anymore. She convinced herself that she made choices that honored God, that honored the Catholic faith. Now, she’s seen that those choices didn’t result in “good,” that she herself was perpetrating evil.
By the end of the novel, she’s having both a crisis of identity and a crisis of faith. She’s stripped of any moral certitude, any sense of self. She has nothing to believe in anymore. She’ll have to start all over, to reconstruct an identity for herself.
RR: One of your epigraphs is from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who says, “To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that he’s doing good.” We often hear about the role denial plays in the mentality of the aggressor, like Solzhenitsyn is pointing at—a concept that’s especially relevant when discussing Nazi Germany. But I’m interested, too, in the role of denial for the victim, where forgetting the “truth” or what is “real” might be the only way to survive, to move forward. That feels like a strong undercurrent in this book, too. Is it something you were thinking about?
TI: There are tiers of humanity that embrace evil for the sake of evil. But the larger tier of people, and the scarier one because it’s so relatable, are the people Solzhenitsyn is referring to. We don’t want to think of ourselves as monsters. So there’s a psychological process of denial, of transforming our belief system in order to support and rationalize our actions so we can sleep at night.
But Danielle is in a sort of in-between—one foot in the world of the victim and the other in the world of the aggressor. She has to convince herself that she’s doing what has to be done to protect herself, her family, her village, France. We’re all susceptible to that kind of rationalizing. It starts with tiny steps, tiny acts of othering. In WWII France, it began with tiny acts. Jews being turned away from non-Jewish restaurants. Once you start doing that, you’re committed to the path. At what point do you draw the line? At what point do you say I’ve gone too far? By then, human beings are being packed into box cars and carried to extermination camps.
After Danielle has fully assumed the identity of Marie-Jeanne and suppressed or rejected any part of her former self, there’s a scene where she’s writing a letter to someone just after the Jews in the southern zone have been required to wear the Jewish star on their clothing. Initially, the southern zone wasn’t occupied by the Nazis, and Jews there weren’t made to wear the Jewish star, but as the war went on and the noose tightened around France, eventually they were. In this letter, Danielle wonders why people are protesting the new requirement. She wonders how it’s any different than a Christian wearing the crucifix, why it’s not something a Jew would be proud to wear as a sign of their faith. Part of that is naivety of what it truly means, but part of it is willful ignorance. By then she knows on a subconscious level what it means, but it’s easier for her to think of it as benign, and not as another step in the perpetration of evil, forcing the victim to self-identify.
RR: Were there moments that were especially challenging to write?
TI: The ending. Finding the right psychological place for Danielle to land was difficult. I wanted to end on a note of hope, but I’m always thinking about Charles Baxter’s perspective on epiphany—that it rarely happens in real life. We may have moments of insight, of self-awareness, but the truer story is about the journey and not the arrival at revelation.
I wanted the door to open for Danielle just slightly, a crack. For her to realize she couldn’t continue as the person she’d become, but have no idea how to reconstruct herself in the world. She just knows she has to try. Pushing her too far into self-awareness would have rung false. That final scene required more drafts than I can count.
I also spent a lot of time on the two scenes between Danielle and Lucien, a Vichy official. Both are grooming scenes. Lucien is a very skilled manipulator who knows how to take this girl’s vulnerable mind, calculate her weaknesses, and lead her gently down a path that will get him what he wants. Information. Allyship. Once someone understands what scares you, that’s the entry point. That’s how he gets in. The trajectory of those scenes was a balancing act. Lucien isn’t a major character in the book, but I found him fascinating.
RR: You’ve written a book about the mass tolerance of evil. Even though the story takes place almost a century ago, do you find that narratives like these are especially timely for our own cultural climate?
TI: When I first started writing the book twenty-five years ago, I was primarily interested in the psychological trajectory of Danielle. It wasn’t until five or six years ago that I realized how disturbingly timely the narrative is. We’re witnessing a global resurgence of fascist dogma, radical right-wing ideologies, anti-Semitism. Have we learned nothing? It was disturbing in recent years to re-read sections I’d written ten years ago and feel like I was reading a headline from today, or the words of a speech from a current world leader.
But a contemporary novel about what’s happening in the world today might feel too close to home for some people. It can be hard to read books about the things we’re living, seeing on the news at night. Some people don’t want to spend their reading time going there. But a novel that’s set almost a hundred years ago can allow a reader to access the same issues from what feels like a safer distance. I hope the relevance, the timeliness, the disturbing truth of what we’re reliving does sneak up on the reader. I hope it offers clarity on how it’s happened in the past, how it’s happening now, how it could happen in the future.