Last year I had the privilege of visiting Normandy with several girlfriends to research for my next time-slip
novel Chateau of Secrets (releases in May). On a snowy
March evening, Ann Menke gave us a tour of the medieval Château d’Agneaux set
on jagged cliffs above the River Vire.
The chateau had been
bombed during World War II so only half of the thousand-year-old structure
remained, but it has been beautifully restored with antique furnishings and
modern appliances. It was a remarkable place, brimming with history and
mystique, but even more remarkable than the house were the stories Ann told us
about her mother-in-law who’d lived in the Château d’Agneaux during the war.
Genevieve de Saint Pern Menke was a French noblewoman
who grew up at the Château d’Agneaux outside Saint-Lo. Under her family’s home was a tunnel where—according
to family legend— her ancestors hid during the French Revolution. When the Nazi
Germans occupied Genevieve's country and ultimately her home, she risked her life
to hide downed Allied airmen and members of the French resistance in this
tunnel underneath the chateau.
Genevieve joined the Red Cross in her early twenties and
drove an ambulance to assist wounded soldiers in France. After the war, she was
awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for carrying soldiers to her ambulance
while under fire from automatic weapons and mortars, the Red Cross Medal of
Honor for treating soldiers on the battlefront, and a second Croix de Guerre
for courageously and successfully negotiating the release of the French
villagers in Germolles before they were executed by firing squad. During the
hours of negotiation, she told the German officer that “an honorable man would
not kill innocent people.”
While we were in France, we biked around the village where Genevieve once lived and spent our nights in the Menke family's renovated manoir with its old stone tower and elegant paintings of ancestors on the walls. The people of Normandy welcomed us warmly, and we spent an afternoon dining with Serge and Marie Charlotte Letourneur, a beautiful couple who shared their memories of the war with us. Marie Charlotte's father and mother had both been leaders in the local French resistance, and Serge gave us pieces of nylon from an American parachute that he'd found after D-Day. They honored us because we were Americans, and we were completely humbled by their regard.
Chateau of Secrets is based on the heroic true stories of the French and German people who fought against Hitler and his regime from the inside. Genevieve Menke passed away in 2010, but her legacy of courage and compassion lives on
through her five sons, her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I
hope now as well through these fictional characters inspired by her heroism.
Here are few pics of Genevieve and my adventure with friends in France:
|Herman and Genevieve Menke outside the family's manoir|
|Chateau d'Agneaux before it was bombed during World War II|
|Genevieve de Saint Pern in the 1940s|
|Mary Kay Taylor and Ann Menke by the lake below the chateau|
|Seventy years after the war and crops still won't grow where the bombs hit|
|Afternoon with the delightful Serge and Marie Charlotte|
|Looking down on the valley and river Vire below the chateau|
|Wish we could have kayaked on the Vire like my characters!|
|Stairs down to the old wine cellar (cave) and tunnel|
|A lovely dinner with Mary Kay Taylor, Ann Menke, and Darwin and Emmanuelle Menke in Paris |