In 1934 Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall, freckled six-year-old living in Paris with her widower father, Daniel. By 1944 she is 16 and living in the walled city of Saint-Malo with her great-uncle, Etienne. She is intelligent, brave, and wise despite her youth. Repeatedly in the face of danger, she turns her disciplined mind to logic and reason rather than giving in to fear. At age six Marie-Laure loses her sight, but with her father's help she learns to "see" the world through touch. She learns Braille, and through Braille books takes imaginative journeys that also nourish her passion for the natural sciences. With her adept fingers, she studies a small but accurate model of Paris carved by her father, until she can safely navigate the real city streets. She also eagerly explores the Natural History Museum where her father works, and spends a great deal of time with Dr. Geffard, the mollusk expert. When war comes to Paris, she and her father take refuge in Saint-Malo, France. After Germans occupy the city, she becomes involved in the resistance movement, where her bravery becomes an inspiration to others. Her life intersects briefly with that of Werner Pfennig. It is a transformative moment in which he redeems himself and salvages his soul. Marie-Laure and her story reflect the title of the book by contrasting her inability to see with her inner light, or spirit. The war for her is a private memory—one of many invisible stories of ordinary people.
In 1934 Werner Pfennig is an undersized eight-year-old German boy with snow-white hair, ears that stick out, and a high, sweet voice. He is gifted with an innate understanding of mechanics and dreams of becoming a great scientist in Berlin. By 1944, at age 18, Werner is a graduate of a Nazi training school and a German private hunting and destroying enemy radio transmitters. Werner and his sister, Jutta, are raised by Frau Elena at Children's House in Zollverein, a German mining town. Like other children at the orphanage, they have lost their father to the mines. Recognizing Werner's intelligence and potential, Frau Elena encourages his interest in science and mechanics and teaches him French. His true gift comes to light when he repairs a broken radio and enhances it to receive broadcasts from outside of Germany. Werner is captivated by this powerful new way to explore the world through radio waves. When his skill leads to acceptance at an elite Nazi training school, Werner thinks it is his chance to achieve his dream. He is flattered to be considered exceptional and seduced by the promise of participation in great things. Ambition blinds him to the fact that his talents are being appropriated by the Nazis and used in the service of evil. In Saint-Malo, Werner's life intersects with that of Marie-Laure. He awakens to the truth that he has been lying to himself. Risking everything to save her life, he at last redeems his soul.
Daniel LeBlanc is the principal locksmith for the Natural History Museum in Paris, a widower, and father of Marie-Laure. A thin, beak-nosed man, he is high-strung and smokes too much. When his daughter goes blind, Daniel uses his professional skills to carve a model replica of Paris. She learns by touch how to navigate the city's streets. When the Germans bomb Paris, he flees with Marie-Laure to the home of his uncle, Etienne, in Saint-Malo. He secretly carries with him the museum's most fabulous diamond, the Sea of Flames. His mission is to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. A practical man, Daniel lives by the principles of logic and reason. He believes every problem has a solution just as every lock has a key. He resists belief in the supernatural or superstition, yet possession of the Sea of Flames tests his conviction. According to legend, the diamond brings misfortune to those whom its keeper loves. Sometimes it seems to Daniel that dark, invisible forces are at work around him. Daniel is proud of Marie-Laure's bravery and resilience. Yet he fears he's been inadequate as a parent and that his love is not enough. When a telegram summons him back to Paris, he does all he can shield her from harm. Hidden in the replica of Saint-Malo he has carved for her, he leaves behind the Sea of Flames as a talisman to protect her. Daniel never returns and dies in prison in 1942.
In 1944 Etienne LeBlanc is 63 years old, "stick-thin," and "alabaster-pale." He lives in the tall, slender house at Number 4 rue Vauborel in Saint-Malo, where he grew up with his much-loved brother Henri. Henri was Daniel's father and died in World War I. Etienne was with him at the time and has never recovered from Henri's death and other horrors experienced in that war. He has become a recluse, fearful of venturing outside. When Marie-Laure first meets Etienne, he seems kind and curious and radiates stillness. His voice is soft and low. Yet she knows he has spells when he sees frightful things that are not there. At these times he hides away in his room on the fifth floor. Etienne occupies the entire fifth floor of the house. He invites Marie-Laure to visit him, entertaining her with stories, taking her on imaginary journeys, and reading to her from books by the great naturalist Darwin. Sometimes they listen to music from one of his 13 radios. Eventually he shows Marie-Laure a secret radio transmitter in the attic. From here, Etienne once broadcast recordings made by Henri—science lessons for children. Henri was the radio "Professor" heard by Werner and Jutta in faraway Zollverein, Germany. In 1942 Etienne joins the resistance movement in Saint-Malo, successfully battling the agoraphobia that has kept him confined to the house. In 1944 he is imprisoned by the Germans during the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he lives to be reunited with Marie-Laure.
Frank Volkheimer grew up in Prussia, a heavily forested region in northern Germany bordering Russia. Before the age of steamships, Volkheimer's great-grandfather was a sawyer, cutting down giant trees that would become the masts of sailing ships. Desperate to leave this backwater region, Volkheimer applies and is accepted to Schulpforta, where he first meets Werner Pfennig. He is three years older than cadet Pfennig. Volkheimer has high cheekbones, a long nose that is flared at the tip, and a "chin like a continent." He loves classical music. At the school, his impressive stature and strength earn him the nickname "the Giant." By the end of the war he has killed a hundred or more men. Yet Volkheimer's relationship with Werner reveals a fundamental decency that Nazi indoctrination and war's insanity do not destroy. In the arena of war, Staff Sergeant Volkheimer heads up the team of radio hunters that includes Werner. By this time Volkheimer is hardened to the brutality of war and has learned to survive. He does what the Reich expects of him without emotion. Nevertheless, he develops a brotherly protectiveness for diminutive Werner. Like so many others in Werner's life, he recognizes the boy's gifts and sees what he might have become in better times. In Saint-Malo, when Werner betrays the mission, Volkheimer protects him with feigned ignorance. Long after the war, Volkheimer's enduring loyalty and fondness drive him to find Werner's sister and deliver into her hands the dead boy's few but meaningful effects.
Like Werner Pfennig, Frederick enters Schulpforta when he is 14. Unlike Werner, he is a misfit. His wealthy, politically well-connected family lives in Berlin. Frederick's father is an assistant to an ambassador, and his mother is an ambitious woman. They have pushed their son into Schulpforta to further their standing within the Reich. As Frederick explains to Werner, they need him at the school, and he has no choice but to be there. Frederick has weak eyes and must mask his poor eyesight while at school. Yet he sees what is going on around him more clearly than Werner. He sees the moral decay in what cadets are being taught and how they are being warped by relentless propaganda. Frederick also understands that Werner attends Schulpforta in pursuit of a dream, not to become a Nazi. He chides his friend for believing he has given up nothing in exchange for education and opportunity. Frederick becomes a voice of conscience as Werner's story unfolds. Frederick resists the corrupting influence of Nazi ideology, and his gentle nature remains unchanged. With rare courage, he stands up to its cruelty and evil and pays a terrible price. He is a reflection of what Werner at last realizes he can and should aspire to be morally. He becomes a vehicle by which Werner makes amends for the consequences of his blind ambition. Frederick has a passion for birds and their profound beauty. They represent the innocent world, when it was one endless garden.
Reinhold von Rumpel
Before the war, Reinhold von Rumpel was a gemologist who ran a mostly honest appraisal business in Stuttgart. He is also a diamond expert. He has moist red lips and pale cheeks. He is married with two young daughters. Because of the war, von Rumpel has risen to the position of Sergeant Major. He now oversees the packing, crating, and cataloging of jeweled treasures confiscated from German-occupied territory. His dream is to track down the fabulous Sea of Flames diamond, adding this crowning touch to the Führer's vast collection of precious objects. Von Rumpel is well aware of the diamond's legendary curse—that its keeper cannot die though misfortune will come to those he loves. When the sergeant major begins his hunt for the Sea of Flames in 1940, he is 41 and beginning to show signs of illness. A cancer is spreading like a vine throughout his body. As it grows the diamond's legend of immortality takes on more profound significance for him. Though cruel and greedy, the sergeant major is a practical man who relies on patience, manipulation, and cunning to achieve his goals. However, as his illness progresses and it becomes clear that he is dying, he succumbs to superstition. The desperate hope that the legend is true soon drives his relentless search. He will stop at nothing to acquire the diamond, including torture and murder. His quest eventually leads him to Saint-Malo and Marie-Laure.