In the early 1990s, shortly after her mother’s death, Quebec comedian Lise Dion came upon a series of notebooks locked in the bottom of her mother’s trunk. They were addressed to her and contained a series of stunning revelations: During the war, her mother, Armande Martel, had been a nun in France, where she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a German concentration camp.
Dion was in shock. Like any child, she had been curious about her mother’s past. As far as she knew, Armande, a housecleaner and gifted seamstress, had been born and raised in Quebec. In her 30s, she had fallen deeply in love with Maurice, with whom she lived (somewhat scandalously) before marrying and adopting a baby girl (Lise).
At the time of her death, Armande had been widowed for nearly three decades. In The Secret of the Blue Trunk, Dion unravels her mother’s disturbing tale, which she allows Armande to communicate directly from the pages of her notebooks.
Armande Martel was born in 1912 in Chicoutimi, to a mill worker and his wife. Her mother died when she was small, and her father, unable to cope with the loss, eventually handed her over to an orphanage. Armande was 6, furious and terrified. In time, however, the kindness of the nuns, the solace of the the prayers, the predictable routine and the discipline of the chores ensconced her in an atmosphere of contentment. Armande enjoyed school, kept her thoughts in a journal and developed an aptitude – a passion – for sewing.
At 17, she announced to her confidante, Sister Adolphine, that she would like to take the veil in Adolphine’s community in Rennes, Brittany. Armande made the thrilling journey to France and, after her training, took her perpetual vows in May, 1934. To Armande, France felt like home. But it was here, in December, 1940, that the Nazis arrived at the residence of the Eudarist fathers, where she worked as a laundress. She was a British subject and the Germans considered her an enemy. Her mother superior put up no fuss. She was abandoned by family once again. When soldiers unearthed her private journal, in which she had copied verses critical of Hitler, she was immediately sent to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp.
This is an uneven, sometimes amateur-feeling work, but Armande’s powerful voice caught me up from the start. Her depiction of girlhood in a Quebec convent is vivid, richly enhanced by her keen sense of touch and smell, her sensitivity and her ability to articulate her emotions. I found it interesting to observe a young woman evolve apart from the unrelenting male gaze; to see her decide who she is and what she likes minus today’s hyper-emphasis on female sexuality.
Yet this sheltered life increased Armande’s vulnerability. When she arrived at Buchenwald, the women were required to strip so soldiers could shave and inspect them. Armande, beside herself with terror and humiliation, refused to remove her habit. She was on the verge of a severe beating when a fellow prisoner advised her to remove her underwear first and then her robe, so she would not be naked long. The woman, Simone, along with two other women who shared their mattress, became Armande’s prison family. Time and again, these women literally kept each other alive.
Armande was put to work in the munitions factory, where one false move might cause a deadly explosion. But her convent life had taught her to focus intensely on the simplest or most difficult chore. The habits, skills and values she acquired as a nun – obedience, discipline, poverty, even vows against gluttony, and her ability to work co-operatively – became aids to her survival.
While we are reminded throughout of her love of sewing, the writing that seals her fate, and the notebooks that shape this work, are only sporadically mentioned. In addition, the story’s watershed moments roll out rather flatly, with little suspense. But the book’s artlessness is also partly responsible for its poignancy. It is painfully frank and absorbing, and in the end, difficult to put down.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer. Her most recent book is What’s a Black Critic To Do II.