In Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s 20th book, The Night War, she returns to the World War II era of her award-winning middle grade novels The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won. This time, though, her story takes place in France rather than England. In The Night War, 12-year-old Jewish Miriam (Miri) Schreiber finds herself posing as a Catholic in a convent boarding school in the town of Chenonceaux, home to the Chateau of Chenonceau, where the formidable Catherine de Medici ruthlessly held power in the 1500s. The castle straddles the river between what was then Nazi-occupied France and the unoccupied territory of Vichy, and was used to smuggle Jews to safety—an endeavor in which Miri becomes a key player. Bradley spoke with PW from her farm in Tennessee about her unexpected sympathy for Catherine, writing a ghost as a character, and the parallels she hopes readers will draw between the persecution of Jews in the 1940s and the growth of antisemitism and fringe ideologies today.

You write primarily historical and realistic fiction. Why was it important that the ghost of Catherine de Medici be a character in your otherwise realistic book?

It’s true, I’ve never written any fantasy. The genesis of this book was a visit in spring 2017 to Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley with my husband and son. Sitting in the gardens after our tour, soaking up the atmosphere, I said to my son, “She’s still here. Can’t you feel her?” referring to Catherine de Medici. My son replied, “You can’t write a ghost story, Mom.”

I said, “Hmm, I don’t know.”

I know I could have written the entire book without her, but when I visited Chenonceau Catherine felt so real to me, so very present, that when I came up with Miri’s story, much later, I kept thinking about Catherine, too. I thought by this point in time Catherine needed someone like Miri, who would question her past actions. I liked the idea of giving a historical figure a chance to have a relationship with a child character who pushes back against her explanations as Miri does, and to then give Catherine the chance to atone for the wrongs she did through the religious persecution she inflicted on the Huguenots—the French Protestants—in the 1500s.

I also hoped that including Catherine in the book and drawing a parallel between the events of the 1500s and the events of World War II would make it less of a stretch to draw parallels between World War II and today, when antisemitism and fringe ideologies are both rising alarmingly. Early in the book a character says, “One way to get power is to conquer your enemies. So the first thing to do is create an enemy.” Hitler did that, and we’re seeing that happening again right now in the United States.

In responding to some of Miri’s questions about her behavior, Catherine shares a lot about her unusual and difficult childhood, without any self-pity. Why did you choose to include so much background about Catherine’s early years?

That moment in Chenonceau piqued my interest in Catherine and I started reading about her right away. I often do this while traveling—I get interested in whatever I’m seeing and start reading—but it doesn’t always lead to a book. I found myself feeing so sorry for her as a child. I’ve written a lot about kids with traumatic childhoods and she had a heartbreaking one. She was orphaned when she was just three weeks old and cared for by a succession of relatives. Her powerful uncle Pope Clement II used her as a pawn in his attempts at power. In spite of her persecution of the Huguenots, there’s much evidence to suggest she wasn’t religiously intolerant, that her ambition was always to maintain her political power. Fascinated as I was by Catherine, though, I was still far from having a book idea.

In March 2018, I took a PJ Library Israel Author Adventure trip and toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, with a few of the other authors on the trip. There I learned about Jewish children being hidden in French Catholic boarding schools during World War II. I also saw a display about a Catholic bishop in the south of France at that time who appointed a couple he knew were secretly Jewish to be in charge of a Catholic boarding school in the region so they could help shepherd Jewish kids to safety. I started thinking about having a transport character like this in a book that took place in Chenonceau, and then I realized I might have found the piece I was looking for to connect to Chenonceau—and Catherine. That visit to Yad Veshem is where the bones of the story came together.

Early in the book, a nun tells Miri that helping her “probably is illegal, but it’s not wrong. It’s morally right.” What led you to incorporate this complicated concept into your story?

I don’t think you can set a book in Nazi-occupied France and not contemplate the difference between piety/obedience to the law—piety being obedience to God’s law, as you understand it—and morality. I think middle-grade readers are at the age where they are starting to understand a little bit about ambiguity like that. While the Vichy government existed, most French citizens obeyed the rules the Germans set. That brought about the July 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris, when my book opens. During that round-up, 13,152 French Jews were captured and deported from the city’s Velodrome to concentration camps by the French themselves, who were obeying German instructions. The French police were being obedient to the law, and profoundly immoral. Some of the nuns in my book are strictly obeying what they see as God’s law but wouldn’t want to help Miri; others are breaking all sorts of rules to help other people reach safety. I want readers to understand the difference so that they can be empowered to make choices on the side of good.

What were the challenges of writing a ghost as a character?

When I was starting the book, I talked with my 26-year -old daughter, who has been my first reader for the past 10 years—she has a very strong, natural editorial eye—about this. She said, “You have to have a unified theory of ghosts,” meaning, the rules for the ghost in the book have to remain steadfast. For example, only Chenonceau’s head gardener can hear the voice of Catherine’s ghost. And then there was the question of where else she is allowed to be. I decided she could only walk through open doors and windows, no walls. And she could only go into buildings that existed when she was alive, for example, the village church, but not the school, because the church did exist in her time, but the school is fictional.

I think middle-grade readers are at the age where they are starting to understand a little bit about ambiguity.

You’ve written about World War II before, but in England, not France. How was the research process for this book different?

I actually did write one book, For Freedom [Random House, 2003], that took place in France during that era, but it was a very different process because it was based on a true story of a young woman who became a spy for the French Resistance. Her daughter worked in my husband’s office, and she herself was still alive so I could pin her down on questions.

I was researching this book, though, during the pandemic, so I had to do most of it online. I was lucky to find a woman whose grandfather had survived World War II in the Jewish neighborhood in Paris where the book opens; it was called the Pletzl then, but in earlier centuries it was called Le Marais, and that’s how it’s referred to today, too. She still lives there, and she took me on a walking tour of the neighborhood via her iPad. The elementary school Miri attends in the novel is still an elementary school today! And the only person in The Night War who is historically accurate is the Catholic principal of that school, Monsieur Joseph Migneret. Almost all of the students were Jewish, because of where it was located. He spent much of the war hiding Jewish students and helping them escape. He’s recognized today as one of the Righteous Among Nations for his work.

I returned to Chenonceau in spring 2019 but I couldn’t find anybody to talk to me about what really happened at the castle during World War II. It’s been owned since 1913 by a family of chocolatiers, the Meniers, and I certainly think the Meniers were aware of the castle being used as a bridge during World War II. What I don’t know are the details—were Menier family members staying on the property during the war, when the Nazis also occupied the place? Were any of the family members taking an active role in transporting people? Or were they just turning a blind eye to others doing so? I don’t know, and my efforts to find out didn’t lead anywhere. If I’d had more details I would have incorporated them into the book; as it is, the caretaker Bette, who is part of the story, is entirely fictional.

What are you working on now?

Something completely different! I’m working on a set of modern middle-grade horse stories. My daughter and I both ride, and my son did when he was young. They were in a national group called Pony Club, which is a little like the Girl Scouts. I was a Pony Club troop leader for years.

My books are about a group of five kids—three girls, one boy and one non-binary character—in a Pony Club in the fictional Tennessee town of Sommer Springs. Equestrian sports are the only ones in which men and women compete against each other, even in the Olympics. The first two books are under contract; the first one is based on my daughter’s current horse, who came to us with a horrible back story of trauma—though he works his heart out for us. It’s been terrific fun writing about horse adventures—especially compared to the serious historical subjects I’m usually immersed in.

The Night War by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Dial, $18.99 Apr. 9 ISBN 978-0-73522-856-6