VILLAGE OF SECRETS: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead. Harper, 374 pp., $27.99.

High in the remote uplands of southeastern France, an extraordinary drama played out during the darkest years of the second world war.

Hundreds of Jews made their way to this isolated region of the Eastern Massif Central -- the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon -- known for its long, frigid winters and rugged terrain.

Otherwise cut off from the mainstream of French civilization, Le Chambon and other villages of the plateau became a refuge and hiding place for those wanted by the Gestapo and the authorities of the French collaborationist government known as Vichy -- Jews, Freemasons and Communists, along with many unaccompanied children.

Why and how this came about is the subject of Caroline Moorehead's fastidiously detailed "Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France." The story is complex -- the politics of Vichy, and the events that unfolded on the plateau, are still fiercely contested. But Moorehead carefully explains how, amid the grimness of France's capitulation to Germany, brave men and women -- Catholics, Protestants, Jews, nonbelievers -- risked all to save their charges.

Her narrative demands patient reading. The cast of characters here is bewilderingly large, and her momentum sometimes falters as she frequently pauses to tell backstories of sundry characters. The overall effect is impressive, however. Vichy remains a stain on French history, but Moorehead showcases a valiant counterpoint to the cruelties of occupied France and the slow creep of restrictions and regulations that made life for French Jews first intolerable, then impossible.

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What unfolded in the region, Moorehead writes, was due to "a felicitous combination of timing, place and people." The author cuts through the mythmaking that grew around the plateau in the decades after the war. The hero of this tale, as the story went, was Protestant pastor André Trocmé, an ardent pacifist who was a righteous symbol of nonviolent resistance. As Moorehead discovered, there were many more wrinkles to the story than just the efforts of a single heroic pastor.

There were many heroes, in fact. Among them were two women, Madeleine Dreyfus, the general secretary of the Organization de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Madeleine Barot, head of Cimade, a Protestant women's group. As immigrant Jews were rounded up and detained in internment camps -- Drancy, outside Paris, is where trains left for Auschwitz -- the two Madeleines at first worked legally within the limits of Vichy's policy toward Jews. But as the collaborationist government stepped up its efforts to deport them, OSE and Cimade were forced to go underground. Moorehead also highlights the efforts of Jews in the struggle, among them 18-year-old Russian émigré Oscar Rosowsky, a crack document forger who made his way to the plateau and set up shop making false papers, documents that could mean the difference between life and death.

Le Chambon and environs were already a destination for sickly children in search of healthy mountain air (Albert Camus came for this reason). The religious climate also played a key role. Long a Protestant stronghold, it was home to an austere sect called Darbyists, who prized silence above all -- the tradition of "pas bavard" (no talking) kept them safe in a largely Catholic country, where speaking out was risky. The Protestants here also related to Jews as outcasts, and thus felt an obligation to save them.

Trocmé set the tone from the pulpit with inspiring sermons. In 1940, on the day France surrendered to Germany, he declared that Christians should "use the weapons of the Spirit to resist the violence that will be brought to bear. ... We will resist whenever our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel." Le Chambon opened its doors. If it wasn't such a grim time, the atmosphere Moorehead describes is almost cozy -- there were lively dinners and tobogganing runs in the winter.

But for hundreds of children separated from their parents, life on the plateau also was traumatic. Darbyist households were sternly reserved. Moorehead writes movingly of how one 12-year-old-girl "had to force herself to learn to live apart, detach herself from other people, and once she had learnt that lesson, she found it impossible to feel close to her parents again." Even if they were saved, the survivors were left forever changed by life on the plateau.