THE INNOCENTS WITHIN

By Robert Daley

Villard. $25.95 438 pp.

By Carolyn T. Hughes, a contributing editor of Poets & Writers magazine.

Le Chambon sur Lignon is a village on the high plateau of France's Massif Central. During the dark days of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution, this small village served as a haven for thousands of Jewish refugees. And from 1939, when the Germans first occupied France and started rounding up so-called undesirables, through the end of the war, one man served as a moral compass for the village: the Protestant pastor Andre Trocme. Outraged over Germany's racial policies, Trocme found hiding places in and around Le Chambon for those persecuted by the Nazis, and arranged for hundreds of these unfortunate souls to escape to Switzerland. For his heroic efforts Trocme (along with his assistant pastor, Edouard Theis, and other residents of the village) was awarded Israel's Medal of the Righteous of the Nations after the war, and a tree was planted in his name along the Alley of the Just on Har ha-Zikkaron.

Robert Daley's imaginative new novel, "The Innocents Within," is inspired by the real-life heroics of Trocme and the people of Le Chambon. Daley's pastor is Andre Favert, "a big lumbering man, balding, with a thin mustache under thick glasses that he was forever taking off to clean." Daley, the author of more than 20 books, including "Prince of the City" and "Nowhere to Run," does a wonderful job of conveying the heavy psychological price Favert pays for his work in the Underground: "He had started as a mild, meek kind of man, lately he had become somewhat domineering, even at times arrogant--people had begun to remark on this."

Favert unwisely loses his temper at Gerhard Gruber, a German Obersturmbannfuehrer visiting the village, and his life takes a tragic turn. Favert is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, leaving his "family" of refugees to fend for itself. One member of this group is 18-year-old Rachel Weiss, who goes by the name Sylvia Bonaire, a Jewish refugee from Germany whose parents disappeared when she was 13. She was taken in by the pastor and has been posing as his ward ever since. With Favert arrested and his wife, Norma, traveling all over France desperately trying to get him released, Weiss is left alone to mind the presbytery. Alone, that is, until 20-year-old American Davey Gannon is brought to her door. Gannon needs a place to mend after being injured when his plane was shot down over central France. A handsome war hero, a beautiful, affection-starved girl: It does not take a genius to figure out what is going to happen next. Before long the two fall in love.

And here is where the talented Daley falters a bit. Daley's fighter pilot is ridiculously--and dangerously--naive. With the Germans searching high and low for him, he insists on taking the now pregnant Rachel to a Catholic church so they can be married. The fact that the two are outlaws and are not French citizens does not seem to enter into the young man's mind. Nor does the fact they have chosen to confide in a priest who has refused to shelter Jews in the past. Mercifully, Daley's other characters are more believable.

In fact, the author superbly chronicles the many sacrifices citizens made during the war. One of the most harrowing moments of the book occurs when the villager on whose farm Gannon crash-landed decides to stay put--even though he knows the Germans are coming to interrogate him about the pilot's whereabouts. His concern is for his animals. "They have to be fed," he tells Pierre Glickstein, a forger in the resistance movement who has been staying with him. "I have to stay with my animals." The farmer does just that. And when Glickstein comes back to check on him, he finds the man dead, his body thrown into a cesspool by the Germans.

Daley's book celebrates "average" people who are forced by circumstances to be anything but. A prime example of this is Norma. Not particularly religious, she repeatedly risks her life to shelter Jews because she cannot abide cruelty of any kind. She goes through innumerable humiliations to get her husband released and is the first person on the scene when the Germans raid the House of the Rocks, a dormitory housing Jewish children. It is a horrible but riveting scene that Daley paints--children being terrorized, a doctor being murdered and a solitary woman trying to put a stop to it. Sadly, she can't, and neither can the pastor when he arrives. But the strength and moral conviction of these two in the face of such unspeakable evil will resonate with the reader.