A Very Long Engagement Summary
A Very Long Engagement begins in January 1917, during World War I. Five French soldiers are being marched to the battlefront on the Somme. They are prisoners, having been condemned to death for shooting themselves in the hand to avoid military service. Their names are Kléber Bouquet (Eskimo), Francis Gaignard (Six-Sous), Benoît Notre-Dame (That Man), Ange Bassignano (Common Law or Nino), and Jean Etchervery (Manech, also known as Cornflower).
In August 1919, Manech's fiancée Mathilde visits Daniel Esperanza, a former army sergeant who is dying in a hospital. He tells Mathilde everything he knows about what happened to the condemned men. He was in charge of escorting them to the frontline trench called Bingo Crépuscule. His orders were that the men were to be thrown over the trench, with their hands tied, into the no-man's-land between the French and German trenches. He arranged for the condemned men to send letters to their loved ones. Then they were sent over the trench. Esperanza does not know exactly what happened after that, since he was transferred to another regiment, but he heard that all five prisoners were killed.
The White Widow
The wheelchair-bound Mathilde studies the information that Esperanza left her. She reads the copies he made of the men's letters and also reads a letter from Captain Favourier to Esperanza dated Sunday, January 7, which says the five men are still alive and he hopes to receive an order to bring them back at nightfall. Mathilde tries to piece the puzzle together. From Aristide Pommier she gleans some information about Manech as he was awaiting trial. She sees Esperanza again and suspects he is withholding information from her. She suspects That Man's letter is not what it appears.
The Good Old Days
Mathilde writes to the wives of the dead prisoners. She meets Six-Sous' s wife and receives letters from the village priest in That Man's town and Madame Conte, who is Tina Lombardi's godmother. Conte says Tina received official notice that Common Law was killed in action January 7, 1917. Mathilde visits the bar owned by Little Louis, a friend of the Eskimo, who tells of how his friend was also declared killed in action. Louis tells of a quarrel between the Eskimo and his girlfriend Veronique Passavant, and between the Eskimo and one of his closest friends, a man known as Biscuit. Mathilde wants to believe that the Eskimo, a tough character, protected Manech and saved his life.
Queen Victoria's Tuppence
Pierre-Marie Rouviàre has at Mathilde's request discovered more information. A casualty list dated Monday, January 8, 1917, lists all five men as dead. But there is no evidence they were killed in the manner Esperanza says, and the lawyer knows that there was an official pardon for the men on January 2. Even though Pierre-Marie tries to convince Mathilde that Manech is dead, she is not convinced. She publishes an advertisement in the newspapers, asking for information. She believes that a casualty list can be altered and that at dawn on Sunday, January 7, all five men were still alive.
The Mahogany Box
Mathilde receives a letter from Veronique Passavant, saying that she believes the Eskimo is still alive, although she has no evidence. The mother of Urbain Chardolet tells Mathilde that when her son saw the five men lying in the snow, one or perhaps two were not the person or persons he expected to find. This gives Mathilde hope. Benjamin Gordes's wife Elodie writes to say that Gordes was killed January 8, 1917, in a bombardment. Mathilde learns that Gordes is the man named Biscuit and that in 1916, Gordes and the Eskimo quarreled over a woman. Mathilde suspects that Gordes later had some influence on his former friend's fate.
The Woman on Loan
Elodie Gordes explains what happened between herself, her husband, and Eskimo in 1916. The war was hard on Benjamin Gordes. He told his wife that if they could have another child, making six in all, he would be discharged from the army....
(The entire section is 1,253 words.)