“Based on a true story, In This Hospitable Land is a work of fiction that traces the the journey of the Severin family as they flee Belgium when the Germans invade in 1940. Andre Severin is a chemistry professor at the Free University of Brussels, and his brother, Alex is a philatelist. When the Germans drop bombs on Brussles, Andre heads to the seaside resort of LeCoq, Belgium where his wife and Alex's wife (who happen to be sisters) and their children as well as Andre and Alex's parents have already moved. When the Germans invade Belgium, the Severins, who are non-practicing Jews, flee across France, staying just a few steps ahead of the invaders at every stage of their trip.
For a short time, they feel safe in France, but then France falls to Nazi Germany as well, and the refugees from Belgium are trapped. They desperately move across France from just outside and south of Paris to one small farming community and then to a more secluded farming community in Huguenot country. Here, they remain safe for awhile, but very guardedly so. Soon enough, however, they find that the French police have been charged to register any refugees and then, the Severin's find themselves worrying about not only the Germans, but the French military, specifically the Milice, a paramilitary force created with the aid of the Germans.
The Severins, who had settled on a farm and undertaken hard labor, far different from what they had been used to in Germany, found themselves relying on the kindness of the Huguenot people of a remote French village. Both Andre and Alex join forces with the French Resistance, and soon find themselves in hiding. Not long after, their wives, Denise and Genevieve, along with their children are forced from the farm and into hiding. The family finds themselves divided as they are shepherded from home to home or other various locations, always on guard, for "It's your neighbors you must worry about. They might prove deadly when the Brownshirts [the Milice] come with questions and demands. You believe that they respect and even love you. Maybe that's so. But people say and do terrible things if they believe betraying others will keep them safe..." Fortunately, the Severins find some extraordinary members of the community who aid them throughout the occupation of France.
Brock's fictionalization of this experience is, at times, an exceptionally intimate tale of a family desperate to survive in this troubling time; at other times, however, the story lacks an intimacy that would make this a much stronger work. While I found myself largely absorbed throughout the novel, the detail that Brock devotes to some occurrences, such as Andres obsession with journaling both their successes and failures with certain planting techniques and crops, seems overdone especially when scant detail is given to the sexual assault of Ida and Kate. More detail was devoted to the slaughtering of a farm animal than to this incident, making the reaction of the adults seem far too remote and understated. Given the heft of the text already, however, perhaps Brock was leery of adding additional detail for fear that the book was less likely to appeal to a mass audience. However, this concern could easily have been addressed by considering more careful where minute details could have been edited from the text to allow for more breadth of detail in other areas.
Overall, however, I found the the novel well done, especially in terms of the overall development of the characters. Further, for a work of fiction, In This Hospitable Land was also highly informative, so much so that at times I had to remind myself that this was a novel and not a memoir or a piece of non-fiction writing. However, I think that the informative nature of many of the details--describing the history of certain villages within France, specifically, the history of the people who settled in this area, was necessary to the overall structure of the novel and to understanding the experiences that were common to many refugee families who fled and then hid from persecution from the Germans when Belgium and France were invaded.
The strongest part of the novel for me, was the details Brock devoted to establishing the relationship between Andre and Alex as brothers as well as the relationships between the two brothers and their respective wives. These details are where the intimate feel of the novel comes into play and really helped me connect with the characters. In addition to the thoughtful attention to these familial relationships, another strong aspect was Brock's handling of Andres struggle with how to aid the French Resistance while remaining a pacifist. We see Andre's exploration of his most basic ethical, moral, and religious beliefs as he struggles with not only what is happening to his beloved Belgium but also with the persecution of his people, despite the fact that he is not a practicing Jew. Many of the questions Andre raises about ethics, morality, religion, and non-violence are themes that we possibly each explore individually but that we find ourselves examining on a social and cultural level as well.”