Last Train to Paris

Last Train to Paris

by Michele Zackheim

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An American foreign correspondent finds herself in love, and in danger, in this novel that “presents startlingly vivid images of life in Hitler’s Europe” (The New York Times).

Rose Manon grew up in the mountains of Nevada, and is now working as a journalist in New York. In 1935, she is awarded her dream job: foreign correspondent. Posted to Paris, she is soon entangled in romance, an unsolved murder, and the desperation of a looming war.

Assigned to the Berlin desk, Manon is forced to grapple with her hidden identity as a Jew, the mistrust of her lover, and an unwelcome visitor on the eve of Kristallnacht. And on the day before World War II is declared, she must choose who will join her on the last train to Paris . . .

This carefully researched historical novel reads like a suspense thriller, and interweaves real-life figures into the story, offering “a poignant glimpse into the tensions and anxieties of prewar Europe” (Kirkus Reviews).

“WWII enthusiasts may appreciate this quieter evocative look at a much-examined era.” —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609451899
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 104,174
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Michele Zackheim worked as a visual artist before turning to writing. She has shown in numerous museums and galleries. She is also the author of Einstein’s Daughter, nonfiction, and Violette’s Embrace. She lives with her husband in New York.

Read an Excerpt


Some days, I'm too angry for words. Those are the days when I can't get to my writing table. When I don't bother to dress. When I stay in my ratty blue chenille bathrobe and shuffle around the house in my slippers. Those days I eat yogurt out of the container, and drink too much coffee — sometimes too much whiskey. I read the newspaper and carry on conversations with myself about the dismal state of the universe. Over the years people have tried to assure me that as I grow older I will become less angry, more accepting of the stupidity I see on our planet. This has not proved true. Sometimes, to ease the tension, I'll read a mystery, hoping to be fooled; often I waste time daydreaming. But I have a job to do, a column to compose, so eventually I'll hunker down and begin writing. Then it gets interesting. There is a shift in my mind and my body. Love takes over. My pen begins to tickle my passion for words and I squirm with pleasure. I still love to use a fountain pen — love the way the smoothed nib pushes the stream of blue ink across the paper, making letters, making words — trying to make sense of the world. I write for a short time and then remove my pen from the paper, put on the cap, and place my fingers on the keys of the typewriter. As if by magic, I write my weekly column for the New York Courier. But, really, it's not magic. It's a facility with rhythm, language, and ideas that comes with age and hard work. And I do have to admit that I still get a thrill when I turn a newsprint page and find my byline: "R. B. Manon."

I love my old house in the rolling hills of upper New York State. Made of wood that's gray with age, it has a peaked roof, ornate gables, and faded red window frames that sag toward the south. It reminds me of the Victorian houses that dotted the mountains of Nevada. And although I'm loath to remember my childhood, the architecture remains in my mind as calming and pretty.

The back of my house has a screened-in porch and faces the southeast. Ten years ago I planted wisteria, a climbing vine, on the south side. Now it snakes around one porch pillar, curls itself around the crossbeam, winds down the other side, and then climbs up again, twisting and turning back and forth. I can no longer tell if it's the woody wisteria holding up the porch roof or if it's the pillars. What I do know is that in the spring, the flowers drip from the vines, creating a gossamer fringe of lavender.

A reminiscence. Spring in Paris. Overnight, shops moved their wares out onto the sidewalk. Fresh-cut flowers, especially modest bunches of violets; potted pink and red geraniums; lovebirds cooing, baritone pigeons, squawking hens, soprano canaries, even small green turtles whose shells were painted with J'aime Paris. The streets became alive with the new season, just like my splendid twelve acres of rolling hills and blooming wildflowers.

It's the spring of 1992. Except for a lip of charcoal-colored cloud peeking over the horizon, the weather's clear. Here I am, an old woman of eighty-seven, on my knees pulling weeds in the cool morning. I hear the phone ringing in the house. Blast it! — it always rings when I'm out here. I know there's no chance of standing up, climbing the steps to the porch, going inside to the kitchen, and getting to it before the answering machine does its job. So I don't bother.

As the afternoon approaches, I'm getting hot and tired and cranky. Finally, achingly, I stand, walk to the porch, climb the three steps, and lower myself into a faded green rocking chair in the shade. Looking out over the hills, I think about the horizon, that mysterious threshold between earth and sky — and I remember the Eiffel Tower. My God! It's a little more than fifty years since I worked in Paris. I remember how I used to long to see over the horizon to the other side. Whenever I was feeling stifled, or more angry than usual, I would go to the top of my urban mountain — the Eiffel Tower. Resting my arms on the railing, I would gaze west across the imaginary sea to the mountains in Nevada where I was born.

One early morning in 1940, it all changed. The French surrendered Paris to the Germans. The city was eerily silent, bereft of many of its citizens. My instinct was to get to my mountain. As I walked toward the Seine on the boulevard St. Germain, I saw Parisians sneaking around corners, hugging walls, slinking past windows painted with ugly methylene blue.

The SS were everywhere. Their gray field blouses, cinched with thick black leather belts and closed with shiny silver buckles, were inscribed Gott mit uns — God Is with Us. I was frightened. I knew firsthand how rough and unforgiving those conquerors could be. But I persisted, turned left along the river, and after a short while, turned left again. I walked over the Pont d'Iéna, seeing before me the Eiffel Tower and beyond to the Parc du Champ de Mars. The park was dotted with ancient lime trees casting their shadows, creating umbrellas of coolness. I looked up. The catastrophe was clear. Flying from the top of the Eiffel Tower was a huge red flag with a black swastika in a white circle.

I needed to get to the summit, but all the elevators were out of order. Sabotage. I wasn't sure if the guard was German or French; he wasn't wearing a uniform. I spoke in French. He didn't understand. I switched to German and he did. He told me that someone had removed crucial parts from the mechanisms. So I climbed. It took a long time. The metal steps were treacherous; they could be slippery, the handrails thin. By the time I reached the second deck, I was exhausted — and relieved to see a chain blocking the rest of the stairs. Still, I was high enough to look out and over the wide expanse of Paris. I was struck by both the city's astonishing beauty and the crushing undercurrent of fear. Rather than taking a deep breath and imagining what brightness was over the horizon, I felt paralyzed by the disaster at hand.

Now, many years later, on this pleasant summer day, I look over my peaceful green hills and feel safe. My only enemy is time.

It isn't until the afternoon that I remember to check the answering machine. It's a message from the delivery company, informing me that they will arrive tomorrow morning.

A few weeks ago, I was informed by the Paris Courier's office that the newspaper was moving to new headquarters and the staff was cleaning out the basement. Would I like the crate that they had been storing for me since the beginning of World War II? I said yes, of course, curious about retrieving whatever ancient fragments of my old life still existed. But I was also surprised. I had heard that the newspaper's basement had flooded during the war. Oh well, I remember having thought — there go my notes.

For years I had been avoiding the task of organizing my archive, using the lost notes as my excuse for doing nothing. Now I couldn't avoid it. And what a job it threatened to be! I dreaded it. Like most journalists, I never throw anything away. After all, one never can tell. I might be sued — a researcher might need information that I have — I might need to refer back in time for a story I'm writing. Everything after 1940 is here in my house, roughly tossed into boxes, sometimes labeled with the year, sometimes not.

The next morning is cloudy and the sky a mottled steel gray. I've become melancholy, like the weather. Then there is a loud clap of thunder, and just as it begins to rain, the delivery van arrives. What bad luck. But the man wrangles something onto a hand truck and delivers my young life to my elderly house.

I'm astonished. Standing before me is my old red-leather traveling trunk, not a box. "What the hell," I say aloud, and have to sit down.

I eye the trunk as if it's an ogre in repose. Get on with it, Rosie, I say to myself, don't be such a coward. But the latches are glued shut with the passage of time. It rankles me. I get a chisel and hammer from the pantry and begin to tap my way lightly around the edges. Before long my hands ache, yet I'm persistent. And I'm fascinated. Soon there is a small pile of rusty dust, but the latches still won't open. I place the chisel in a logical spot and whack it with the hammer. Then I do the same to the second latch. They are both open.

I wait.

I pour myself a glass of whiskey.

I open the trunk.

Out wafts the fragrance of cloistered time.

There, sitting on top, alongside George Sand and Balzac, is my Freud — still stuffed with notes. Oh, no, this isn't mine — it's Andy Roth's. I don't want to open it, afraid it will release old demons into my beloved house. Ah, here's my copy. Just as old and tattered, but filled with my own typed notes and underlines and many, many exclamation marks. Everything then was so important, so dramatic, so tragic. I put Freud aside for the moment, not wanting to be detoured. The next layer is a collection of newspaper articles that I had written in Europe. Careful. They are yellowed, flaking — disintegrating. I save them for later.

Next is a pile of handwritten notes on onionskin paper. They are now so delicate, so fragile — the ink has faded but they're readable. These notes were my witness to the world going mad. I remember a friend telling me that when he came across his old journals, he opened one to an arbitrary page and remembered years of searching and confusion and anger. In one fell swoop, he gathered them up and threw them into a passing garbage truck. "It's good the truck was there at the right moment," he said. "Otherwise, I might have read them and jumped off a bridge!" But I see it from a different perspective. It will be interesting for me to read my old self. I'm curious. I wonder how honest I was? As a reporter I've always been interested in the truth. Was I really determined to tell the truth when I was young?

It's raining hard — the tin roof is protecting me, while at the same time making a huge racket. No matter. I'm wrapped in words and memories. Here are the remnants of my early life. I wonder who I was. Making myself comfortable on the sofa, I begin to read.

* * *

In 1933, I had just traveled across the sea to the second floor of the ParisCourier's editorial office. It was midnight. I remember entering bedlam. It reminded me of a George Bellows painting of an action-packed boxing ring and arena — ochres, grays, an occasional spot of color. Cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke was hanging in the air, adding its aroma to a miasma of damp paper and stale ink. It made my eyes water. The reporters were working at several large, scratched, coffee- and beer-ringed oak tables that made a square in the middle of the room. Over the tables dangled bare light bulbs that were swaying in slow motion to the noise and the bustle. There was too much smoke and too little bright light. The rewrite men were sitting at battered desks haphazardly placed around the room, banging away at rackety typewriters.

Even though it was a blazing hot summer night, most of the men wore fedoras. They had their shirtsleeves roughly rolled up, some with their cigarette packs stored in a fold, the top buttons of their shirts undone, their ties loosely knotted. Cigarettes were burning in ashtrays or hanging from their mouths. My unremarkable black trousers were sticking to my legs and my wilting white blouse was a mistake. The sweat made it stick to my back and stomach, making my brassiere and breasts obvious, and my feet were swollen and sweating in a new pair of flat-heeled black shoes. I stood transfixed–actually, scared–at the top of the stairs, and scanned the room.

Some of the newsmen looked out through the tall open windows onto the street. Others faced the damp interior walls. The walls were decorated with discolored newspaper clippings, water-stained foolscap, and beautiful, but faded, engraved maps of Europe dating back to before the Great War. Scattered on top of a carpet of scrunched-up balls of paper, ripped from typewriters in frustration, were cigarette butts, slimy cigar ends, and empty beer bottles. Tucked into dark crevices were grimy-looking brass spittoons. A few men were talking, but most were yelling at each other across the room; there was the sound of the Teletype machines, and the insistent, nerve-shattering noise of honking taxis outside. It was familiar — reminding me of my previous newsroom, in New York. As I glimpsed my first Parisian cockroach, I also realized that I was the only woman there.

"What can I do for you?" asked one of the men, drinking a beer while reading a galley.

"I'm looking for Mr. Ramsey, the managing editor. Name's R. B. Manon," I said, and we shook hands.

The beer-drinking man gestured toward a glass-enclosed cubicle. "There he is," he said, "the master of chaos. Good luck to you."

Mr. Ramsey was a short, heavyset man with tiny hands and feet and short arms. He had straw-colored hair with a distinctive cowlick at the top of his head. His nose was small and red and pimply; his eyes were blue and quite pretty. He was wearing a bow tie with blue polka dots on a white background. "Well, well, they've sent me a young lady," he scoffed. "I thought you were a man with a name like R.B. Was wondering why they assigned a guy to the social desk. Assumed he was a queer," he said, and shook my hand, trying to show me how strong he was.

I kept a straight face and looked him in the eyes. "My name's Rose Belle Manon. You can call me R.B."

He looked at me strangely. "Well, it's good you're not a looker. It'll be easier to work with you."

My new home was on the Left Bank, the Hôtel Espoir on the Place de la Sorbonne. The name of the hotel was deceptive; it was a sad-looking fleabag with blistering gray paint over gray stone. My room cost fifty cents a day. The hotel had five stories, with two dormer garrets on the top floor. The rooms opened off long corridors, dimly lit with cold blue bulbs. There was no elevator. Fortunately, I lived on the second floor. Few of the locks on the doors worked–it was like a ranch bunkhouse. I wasn't used to people barging into my room, and at first found it disconcerting. The rooms were almost identical, and people joked that after too much drinking, you shouldn't be surprised if some morning you woke in the wrong bed. My room had one of the few sinks, although no hot water, and the sink was decorated with unpleasant mineral stains that were impossible to clean. Above the sink was an old, golden-clouded mirror. The rooms were long and narrow and each had one tall French window that opened out onto either the street or, as in my case, the trash-strewn courtyard. An old woman, who I called Madame Canari, lived across the way. She was always wearing a starched pink apron with a flowered red kerchief on her head. 'Good morning,' she would yell across to me, no matter what the time of day. She had pet canaries that never wearied of filling the courtyard with their lovely song. They would flutter about, reminding me of a forsythia shrub whose yellow flower petals were being blown by the wind. I was grateful for a touch of nature and the woman's neighborly ways.

Having inherited a narrow and rather lumpy bed, I covered it with my Indian blanket, brought from Nevada. There was a ratty, dull-brown armchair whose arms were encrusted with ancient dirt, but it was comfortable. Between the chair and my bed was a brown fringed lampshade that shimmied when people walked on the stairs. My favorite piece of furniture was the Técalémit radio that I bought at Marché aux Puces, the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt. As time went on, and the world was on the brink of war, I needed music more and more. Above the bed I hung a poster, of the turn-of-the-century dancers, Bal Musette, which I had bought at a green metal bookstall along the Seine. I also bought four pots of red geraniums, which I placed on the narrow wrought-iron balcony outside my window.

A reporter, Andy Roth (originally from Golden, Colorado), whom I'd known since my stint at the New York Courier, welcomed me to the hotel. "I live two doors down from you. I know this is a dismal joint, but you'll get used to it."

Wherever I looked, there was fodder for stories. Having come from a small town, I was amazed at the variety of people. "I could write forever here," I told Andy. "The entire world's represented under this roof."


Excerpted from "Last Train to Paris"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Michele Zackheim.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

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Praise for Zackheim’s BROKEN COLORS
“With soaring lyricism, Zackheim limns an exquisitely haunting portrait of an indelibly scarred, yet deeply passionate, woman.” – Booklist
“This is a beautiful novel, sometimes comic and always wise.” Library Journal

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The Last Train to Paris 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
leoraskolkinsmith More than 1 year ago
"Michele Zackheim's lucid prose has both rare qualities of modesty and depth. One sits so comfortably inside the story of a young American woman brought into the hellish undertow of nazism in France right before the outbreak of World War II. She could be one own's recognizable mirror image swept into this still unknown terror. And yet Zackheim provides enough distance to reason and  integrate what would be otherwise a painfully unbearable odyssey. I loved this book. I became immersed in its gentle telling, the moving humanity that propelled it forward.  A wonderful writer who never betrays the large historical canvas she has chosen to write on." –Leora Skolkin-Smith, Author, Award-winning Hystera, and Edges
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book starts out slow but soon enough you can't help but become involved. Heart wrenching but well done. A very good book.