Gisèle Duchant guards a secret that could cost her life. Tunnels snake through the hill under her family’s medieval chateau in Normandy. Now, with Hitler’s army bearing down, her brother and several friends are hiding in the tunnels, resisting the German occupation of France.
But when German soldiers take over the family’s château, Gisèle is forced to host them as well—while harboring the resistance fighters right below their feet. Taking in a Jewish friend’s baby, she convinces the Nazis that it is her child, ultimately risking everything for the future of the child. When the German officers begin to suspect her deception, an unlikely hero rescues both her and the child.
A present day story weaves through the past one as Chloe Sauver, Gisèle’s granddaughter, arrives in Normandy. After calling off her engagement with a political candidate, Chloe pays a visit to the chateau to escape publicity and work with a documentary filmmaker, Riley, who has uncovered a fascinating story about Jews serving in Hitler’s army. Riley wants to research Chloe’s family history and the lives that were saved in the tunnels under their house in Normandy. Chloe is floored—her family isn’t Jewish, for one thing, and she doesn’t know anything about tunnels or the history of the house. But as she begins to explore the dark and winding passageways beneath the chateau, nothing can prepare her for the shock of what she and Riley discover…
With emotion and intrigue, Melanie Dobson brings World War II France to life in this beautiful novel about war, family, sacrifice, and the secrets of the past.
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Chateau of Secrets
Candlelight flickered on the medieval walls as Gisèle Duchant stepped into the warmth of the nave. The shadows in the sacristy were the only witnesses to her secret—no one but she and Michel knew the same small room that stored the vestments and supplies for their family’s chapelle was also a hiding place.
She slid the iron gate across the entry into the sacristy, and after locking it, she set down her picnic hamper—emptied of its Camembert cheese and Calvados—and turned toward the pews.
Five women from Agneaux, the tiny commune at the top of the lane, knelt before the altar, the sweet fragrance of incense blending with the smell of cigarette smoke on their clothing. For centuries, women had visited this chapelle to plead with the Almighty to protect their husbands, sons, and brothers as they fought for France. Now they battled in prayer even as the men they loved defended their country against Hitler and his ploy to assimilate the French people into his Third Reich.
Gisèle slid her fingers over the amber rosary beads around her neck, gently fingering the ornamented handle of the brass crucifix in the center. A cross that was also a key.
“Secrets can destroy.”
The words of her university professor echoed in her mind. If a secret was powerful enough, her philosophy professor had declared from his lectern, it could demolish an entire army. Or shatter the heart of a family.
The narrow pew creaked as she knelt beside it. Looking up at the crucifix that hung above the altar, she crossed herself and then whispered, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.”
Her mind wandered as the familiar prayer tumbled from her lips.
The healing powers of a secret intrigued her, the layers that sheltered families and nations alike. A secret could destroy, like her professor said, but it could also shield a family. Like the tangled hedgerows of brushwood and bramble that fortified the nearby city of Saint-Lô, a secret could keep those you love from destruction.
When did a secret cross over the gray wasteland between protecting one you loved and destroying him?
Last month Prime Minister Chamberlain had evacuated all the British troops he’d sent to France, along with a hundred thousand French soldiers. Michel had been among those evacuated at Dunkirk, and Papa thought his son was safe in England.
But Michel snuck home after the evacuation, and she prayed God would forgive her for her trespasses, that her secret effort to save her younger brother’s life wouldn’t become a mortal sin.
The women whispered prayers around her, and like many of them, she couldn’t confess her sin to anyone, not even to the priest who came once a week to preside over Mass. With the world in turmoil, they all had to guard secrets to protect the men they loved.
Aeroplane engines buzzed in the distance, and she shivered. The German bombers flew over them almost every night now, showing off their power for the citizens of Saint-Lô. Her country refused to be intimidated by their display.
Candles rattled in their bronze holders.
“Deliver us from evil,” she whispered as the planes passed overhead. Then she repeated her words.
Unlike Austria and Denmark, France would fight the Nazis.
When the drone of engines settled into the night, the village women silently slipped out the door. Gisèle rose to attend to her duties.
Just as she was the keeper of Michel’s secret, she was the keeper of the Chapelle d’Agneaux. While other aristocratic women attended their formal gardens or antique collections, her mother had painstakingly cared for the chapelle for two decades. Instead of remembering her mother at the cemetery beside the chapelle, Gisèle liked to remember her inside these walls. When she was at the château, Gisèle unlocked the door of the chapelle every morning so villagers could pray, and every night she blew out the vigil candles and swept the stone floors.
Outside in the courtyard, the misty breath of the river Vire stole up and over the stone walls of the chapelle and the turrets of the medieval château that stood before her, the home of the Duchant family for more than three hundred years. While her family had lost sons and daughters to the guillotine during the revolution and to the wars that were waged across France, this fortress of stone towers and secret tunnels had sheltered many of her ancestors through wars and storms. It had been a solace for her mother. And for her.
Gisèle quickly crossed the gravel courtyard and hurried into the foyer of the Château d’Epines. Sliding off her red suede pumps, she padded across the marble floor in her silk stockings, the handles of the picnic hamper clutched in her hands. If she could store the hamper before she saw her father, she wouldn’t have to lie to him.
She snuck past the staircase that spiraled up to the second floor and the entrance to the drawing room, but before she reached the door to the kitchen, her father called her name. Then she heard the heels of his sturdy Richelieus clapping across the marble floor.
She dropped the hamper and kicked it to the edge of the antique console table.
The sight of her father in his brown cardigan and trousers, the familiar scent of applewood and tobacco, usually comforted her, but tonight the fear in his blue eyes wasn’t familiar at all. Papa—known in France as the esteemed Vicomte Jean-François de Bouchard Duchant—was never afraid.
She clasped the pumps to her chest. “What is it?”
His gaze wandered toward the tall window by the front door, like he was seeking solace from the chapelle outside as well.
“Hitler—” His voice cracked, and he hesitated as if he hadn’t yet digested the news he bore.
“Papa?” she whispered, pressing him.
“Hitler has taken Paris.”
Her shoes clattered on the marble and she stumbled backward as if the tiles had shifted under her feet. Her hands flailed, searching until they caught the banister.
Paris was a great city, the greatest in the world. How could it bow to a lunatic?
“But the war—” she stammered. “It has just begun.”
Papa’s shoulders dropped. “The government in Paris . . . they decided not to fight.”
She squeezed the iron banister. How could the Parisians refuse to fight?
If the French resisted together, if they refused to cower . . .
They had to resist.
“What will happen?” she whispered.
“Philippe is coming to drive you south, to the manor in Lyon.”
“I don’t care what happens to me.” Her voice trembled. “What will happen to France?”
He hesitated again, like he wasn’t sure he should tell her the truth. He might still have thought her twelve, but she was twenty-two years old now. A graduate of the prestigious Université de Caen. She was certainly old enough to know the truth.
She willed strength into her voice. If he thought her strong, perhaps he would be honest. “You must tell me.”
He seemed to consider her words before he spoke. “Hitler won’t stop until he takes all of Europe.”
She released the banister to pick up her pumps, her hands trembling. “I can’t go to Lyon.”
Compassion mixed with the fear in his eyes. “We must leave. Hitler seems determined to take London next, and his army will march through here on their way to the port at Cherbourg.”
She rubbed her bare arms. Lyon was ten hours southeast. “If they’ve taken Paris, it won’t be long before the Germans take Lyon too.”
“Perhaps.” Papa tugged on the hem of his cardigan. “But Philippe can take you to Switzerland before then.”
Hitler’s appetite for power seemed insatiable. He’d taken much of Europe now, but she doubted conquering the rest of France and even London would satisfy the German führer. With the French government refusing to fight, they needed courageous Frenchmen—former soldiers like Michel—to stop him.
But ten years ago, before her mother died, she’d begged Gisèle to care for Michel. Even though she was just a girl, Gisèle had sworn, on the crucifix of her mother’s rosary, that she would give her very life to watch over her brother. Michel may have been nineteen now, but he was just as headstrong as when he was a boy. How could she protect him from an onslaught of the German army and their bombs?
Papa rang a bell. “Émilie will help you pack your things for the trip.”
Seconds later their housemaid rushed into the hall, her white apron tied over her black uniform and her graying hair pinned back in a neat knot. But instead of stopping, Émilie rushed past Gisèle to the front door, a valise clutched in each of her hands.
Papa called out to her. “Where are you going?”
Émilie set down one of her bags. “My sister just called from Cahagnes. German tanks are moving through the town.”
Papa swore. Cahagnes was just thirty kilometers away.
As the door opened and then rattled shut, Gisèle slipped on her shoes. Before she left, she had to warn Michel that the Germans were near.
“You must pack your things,” Papa said as he glanced at his watch. “Philippe said he would be here within the half hour.”
Her chest felt as if it might explode. The Germans might kill them if they stayed, but she couldn’t leave without telling her brother. He had to flee as well.
“I need more time,” she pleaded.
“Ma chérie,” he said tenderly as he reached for her hand, imploring her. “It is not safe for you to stay here any longer.”
Her heart felt as if it might rip into two. How could she make him understand without revealing Michel’s secret?
He nudged her toward the steps. “I will meet you in Lyon.”
Still she didn’t move. “You must come with us, Papa.”
“I will follow soon, after I hide the silver and your mother’s jewelry. If they arrive while I’m here—” He cleared his throat. “The Germans won’t harm a member of the aristocracy.”
She nudged her chin up. “Nor will they harm his daughter.”
A siren wailed and the floor shook from more aeroplanes sweeping low in the valley. Hair bristled on the back of her neck.
Papa turned her shoulders toward the stairs. “Hurry, Gisèle.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
She knew he was afraid that he would lose her, just like he had her mother, but if she left right now—
She feared they would both lose Michel.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Château of Secrets includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Melanie Dobson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Gisèle is a young noblewoman whose world changes abruptly when German invaders bomb her hometown of Saint-Lô. Her beautiful home, the Château d’Epines, becomes the local headquarters for German officers. What no one else knows but her though, is that underneath it are winding tunnels where her brother and fellow French resistance fighters hide. Secrets abound within her heart, the walls of the château, and the snaking tunnels underneath.
Gisèle’s granddaughter, Chloe, lives a life far removed from the times of war that her grandmother endured. After calling off her engagement to a prominent political candidate, Chloe agrees to participate in a documentary featuring her family history and the château in Normandy. She is surprised to learn that the documentary filmmaker, Riley, is interested in uncovering the story of Jews who served in Hitler’s army. How would that relate to her family? And she is even more shocked to learn that there are tunnels under the Château d’Epines that saved lives. As Chloe follows Riley on the documentary journey, she discovers secrets held by both her grandmother and the château that encompass profound depths of love, loyalty, and sacrifice entwining their generations.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The idea of secrets is introduced early in the novel. Gisèle considers the following question: “When did a secret cross over the gray wasteland between protecting one you love and destroying him” (page 4)? In what ways did Gisèle’s secrets protect the ones she loved? In what ways did Gisèle’s secrets harm or cost the ones she loved, such as Lisette or even herself? How have you seen a secret destroy?
2. Initially, Chloe is engaged to marry Austin. Chloe acknowledges that she has lost herself in this relationship though, “Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten exactly who I was, silhouetted by those with greater dreams than my own” (page 71). How do Chloe’s romantic choices and consequences compare and contrast to Gisèle’s, both in her refusal of Philippe and her love for Josef? How does each woman’s choice affect her identity?
3. The events surrounding Gisèle’s young adult life differ drastically from those that surround Chloe’s. Different generations experience diverging degrees of luxuries, experiences, hardships, and upbringings that define their thresholds of “norm” and pain. How do you think someone from Gisèle’s generation views those of today’s generation? How have you judged someone in an older generation? What have they faced that you have not?
4. An eloquent comment on World War II, Gisèle says, “Hatred, it seemed, was a powerful unifier of even the greatest enemies. Hatred for the Nazis had also unified those resisting them” (page 106). Love is also a powerful unifier, seen in Josef’s desire to protect his mother and those who sacrificed their lives to protect Adeline. Describe how you have experienced the unifying power of both hatred and love.
5. After witnessing the Jews of her town being shot to death, Gisèle thinks twice about being able to fight the Germans. “She might not be able to fight the dragon, but perhaps she could rescue this boy” (page 121). How do you see Gisèle continue to “fight the dragon” against the Germans even after she thinks this to herself? Describe an experience in your life that despite its trauma, you continued fighting the dragons.
6. When the Germans come to live at the Château d’Epines, Gisèle asks herself, “Should she stand for all that was good and refuse them, even if it cost her life? Or should she compromise her morals to save her life—and the lives of those in her care” (page 180)? What decision would you have made if you were in her shoes? Why? Describe an experience in your life when you felt judged by others for making a decision that seemed the lesser of two evils.
7. In Chapter 30, Chloe tells her dad about finding Gisèle’s marriage certificate and Adeline’s birth certificate. How do you think this made him feel? Describe a time when you learned a secret that impacted or involved others. How did it make you feel?
8. Gisèle wrestles with the biblical command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (pages 191). When was she supposed to love her enemy and when was she supposed to resist? And somehow, in the great mystery of faith, was it possible for her to do both? Do you think Gisèle did both? Explain. Do you think it is possible to do both in the Christian faith? Have you ever received love from a perceived enemy or prayed for an enemy? Describe the situation.
9. Riley tells Chloe, “It tells a lot about a person when you find out what or who they’re willing to die for” (page 164). In light of this statement, how would you describe and characterize Josef. Do you think Josef or Gisèle went too far to protect those they loved? How do you personally draw the line between protecting, serving, or loving others against sacrificing too much of yourself?
10. Riley’s grandfather tells him that “we never know what we truly believe until we are standing in a trench, surrounded by the enemy” (page 243. Identify the “trenches” in Chloe’s story that facilitate her discovery of who she truly is and what she believes. Were these events challenging, painful, or untroubled events? How have the “trenches” in your own life shaped you?
11. Philippe’s debt drove him to make horrific decisions in order to obtain the château. How does his self-centered behavior contrast to the selfless actions of Gisèle’s brother Michel? Secondly, consider and discuss the effects of their choices on the generations that follow. Describe an area in your life where you are influenced by a family member’s prior decision(s).
12. Josef is a rescuer in numerous ways. At what cost to himself did he become the unlikely hero and of whom? Describe how you would feel to know that a soldier of one nation begins fighting with and for the perceived enemy. How do you see this occurring today?
13. Imagine Gisèle and Lisette being able to see one another later in their lives prior to Gisèle’s memory loss. What do you think the women would share with one another? What do you think each woman would feel toward the other?
14. Consider the novel being told from the oberst’s perspective, a man defending and sacrificing for his country, beliefs, and family. How do you judge and compare his level of sacrifice?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Two of Gisèle’s favorite quotes were the following: “You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died” by Guy de Maupassant and “I have learnt that all men live not by care for themselves but by love” by Leo Tolstoy (page 138). Discuss which of these quotes speaks the most to you. Why? Decide as a group a way everyone can lovingly serve someone this week, be it with time, money, or skills.
2. Outline your family tree to the extent that you can. Which two people in your family lineage inspire you the most? Why? What mysteries remain in your family tree, if any? If there are gaps in knowledge, seek out the information.
3. The main characters in Château of Secrets make weighty decisions, often at great expenses. “They all had to lose a bit of themselves to satiate the enemy . . . but in their hearts, she prayed they all would remain true to God and to France” (page 258). Discuss how you relate to this in the spheres of your vocation, relationships, finances, or time. What ‘enemy’ do you feel like you must satiate for a greater purpose? Make one change if you believe you have sacrificed too much in a particular area and ask the group for accountability.
4. Write a letter of thanks to a U.S. soldier or veteran. If you do not know one, visit the websites “Letters to Home,” “A Million Thanks,” or “Operation Gratitude” to participate in sending words or small gift packages to a soldier, veteran, or wounded warrior.
5. Document your own personal story, either in its entirety or segments. Your story is a piece of history and significant to loved ones. Share a portion of it with the group.
A Conversation with Melanie Dobson
1. How did you first come to know of the story of Vicomtesse Genevieve Marie Josephe de Saint Pern Menke on whom this story is loosely based? How do her children and grandchildren describe her?
After Genevieve passed away in 2010, her granddaughter shared Genevieve’s stories of courage and faith with me. I was captivated by Genevieve’s bravery in standing up against the Nazis when they could easily have killed her, and by the stories of hiding the French resistance underneath the family’s château while the Germans occupied it. The Menke family partnered with me as I wrote this novel, and Ann Menke, Genevieve’s daughter-in-law, graciously invited me to their family’s manoir and former château in Normandy. Genevieve left a beautiful legacy as an elegant, courageous, feisty Norman woman who was strong in character and devout in her faith. Her husband, children, and grandchildren adored her, and I hope readers are inspired by her story as well.
2. Do you always visit the places where your books are set? Why is it helpful? What did you love most about your trip for this book?
I always visit the main setting of my books to discover what makes the place unique. The Internet is fantastic for accumulating general details about a location, but good sensory description—the local sights, smells, sounds—breathe life into a novel. And once I can see the setting in my mind’s eye, I no longer get stuck on the details. My brain is freed to focus on the story.
I enjoyed everything about my trip to France—eating the crusty bread and local cheese, biking through the villages, staying in a medieval château with three dear friends. Also I loved spending time with Genevieve’s family and visiting with new friends in Normandy who welcomed us into their homes.
3. This novel is steeped in the historic detail of World War II and the battle of Saint-Lô. What was your research process like?
Before I started writing Château of Secrets, I read through a stack of resources about the war as well as a number of interviews with Jewish men who fought in the German army. To help me visualize the details, I obtained photographs of the battle of Saint-Lô along with film footage of French men resisting the Germans. My time in Normandy was the most important step in the research process. I learned a tremendous amount by exploring the Utah Beach D-Day Museum, visiting Saint-Lô, and drinking tea with men and women who shared their memories of the occupation and war.
4. Many of the main characters in this novel make great sacrifices for freedom, be it tangible or emotional. What does freedom mean to you?
Years ago a friend asked what I valued most in life, and my quick response was freedom. In hindsight, what I really meant was independence—the selfish freedom to do what I wanted, whenever I wanted. Much has happened since I answered that question, and the freedom I value now is more internal—freedom from anxiety and bitterness and fear. Instead of striving for things that deplete me or allowing my thoughts to whirl with anger and frustration, I try to focus on what God has called me to do and rely on Him for provision, direction, and peace. I don’t always succeed at letting go, but this renewed faith in Christ has given me great freedom on the inside.
5. What would you describe as the main theme(s) in Château of Secrets?
The heart of this novel is about sacrifice—what happens to those willing to risk their life to rescue others and what happens to those who betray innocent people in an attempt to save themselves. Some of the characters lost their life in this story while others found healing in their later years. In the Book of John, Jesus said these beautiful words, “Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
6. What do you want readers to experience or take away from this novel?
Château of Secrets is about seemingly ordinary people who stood against evil, often working in secret as they fought against the Nazis and protected innocent people marked for death. As I wrote this story, I was reminded that we have many opportunities today to stand against evil and protect those who are suffering. We may not be risking our life, but it is always extraordinary to sacrifice finances, time, and even our pride to help someone in need.
7. With which character do you relate the most? Why?
I’d like to say that I relate to Gisèle’s heroic choices to rescue Adeline and other orphaned children, but since I’ve never been in her situation, I can’t honestly say what I would do. I do identify deeply with the mixed emotions of many of the characters—Gisèle’s faith and fear, Chloe’s anger and relief, Michel’s optimism in spite of the circumstances, the conflict in Josef’s heart over his terrible dilemma, and both Lisette and Riley in their regrets and ultimately redemption.
8. Michel tells Gisèle “Courage doesn’t mean you stop being afraid . . . It means you continue to fight when you’re terrified” (page 298). How do you personally strive to live this out?
Fear is the personal dragon that I fight daily. Sometimes it’s fear of failure or the unknown. Sometimes it’s fear for my children or my husband. Sometimes it’s ridiculous things that others might find amusing that keep me up at night.
Last year my family spent Christmas serving orphans in Uganda. I was afraid of countless things before and during that trip, but I knew we were supposed to go in spite of my fears and the experience changed our lives. God, in his faithfulness, continues to help me fight against this dragon, and I’m incredibly grateful that He never leaves nor forsakes us.
9. How does your degree and background in journalism influence your writing of fiction?
I pursued a career in journalism because I love to learn. Writing was and still is a fun outlet for me to dig deep as I research both historical events and contemporary people and places. I approach the writing of each new book as a journalist, delving into the time period and details of the events and location first. After a few weeks of research, my characters and plot begin to emerge from the factual accounts of the past.
10. A line from your website highlights your gift as a writer: “My issue is not about finding time to write. It’s about finding time to live around my writing.” With a passion for writing, what are the things that can stifle your creativity? What or who inspires and energizes you again?
Faux busyness stifles my creativity. Often when I’m on deadline, I’ll lose myself to all sorts of seemingly urgent tasks like vacuuming the house or cleaning out the garage. In order to eliminate distraction, I like to escape to a coffee shop with a steady buzz of noise or a quiet hotel where I can immerse myself in my imaginary world. As a family, we also try to keep the Sabbath. After a day of rest, I’m rejuvenated and ready to write first thing Monday morning.
11. What will you be working on next?
I’ve just started a novel about a forty-five-year-old woman named Heather who returns to England to prepare her childhood home for sale. As she and her daughter work together, Heather discovers that her parents hid a terrible secret from her and their village when she was a girl. In spite of the risks to her heart and her future, Heather decides to pursue the truth about what happened in the beautiful gardens behind her family's cottage and in the gardens of the castle next door.
12. When you are not writing, what do you do for fun?
I love exploring new places, hiking in the mountains, playing Settlers of Catan with friends, line dancing, working in my garden, taking yoga classes, reading novels with surprise endings, and most of all, laughing with my family while we dance, hike, or explore together.