In a remote pocket of Nazi-held France, ordinary people risked their lives to rescue many hundreds of strangers, mostly Jewish children. Was this a fluke of history, or something more? Anthropologist Maggie Paxson, certainties shaken by years of studying strife, arrives on the Plateau to explore this phenomenon: What are the traits that make a group choose selflessness?
A quick summary might make Maggie Paxson’s The Plateau sound too earnest to bear ... But something surprising and beautiful happens in these pages. Paxson braids those strands of history, philosophy and reflection into a book that is precious and powerful ... Paxson is a descriptive essayist who can make readers feel the chill of a wintry French gale or the airlessness of a boxcar headed to a German death camp or her own heart breaking as she confronts other examples of human depravity, many involving refugees from around the world who find themselves at the Plateau. She’s evocative without being flowery, philosophical without being weighty. And political? Not overtly ... Some readers might not like the way she meanders from topic to topic, but she never really loses her focus.
I’m not sure she answers her own question. Perhaps it is unanswerable. But in the process of trying, Paxson introduces us to vivid characters, from the past and present, and uses their stories to probe the deepest recesses of the human condition with candor and true feeling ... Paxson’s search to learn more about Daniel Trocmé drives the book’s narrative with such passion that it sometimes clouds her analysis of what motivated him to sacrifice on behalf of total strangers. Then again, as much as Paxson probes Daniel’s writings and interactions to piece together his life, there remains something indecipherable about his story, and you sense Paxson grieving for him without always knowing why ... she grows so close to some families that she drops all pretense of scholarly objectivity—and those who help them. Her examination of the culture clash that accompanies dislocation and exile is powerfully rendered ... But I never felt that she got to the crux of the matter ... I wish that Paxson had trained her considerable intellect and compassion toward...deeper questions. But perhaps they are, indeed, unanswerable. And in times like ours, perhaps it is enough to elevate these stories as examples and aspirations.