ALAMEDA -- On a July day in 1938, a young couple stepped off the dock at Pier 88 in New York City and boarded the SS Normandie, setting off for what they thought would be a six-week vacation in their native France.
Instead, Alice and Emile Pothron were delayed more than a year and later separated as the Nazis swept across Europe. They then endured nearly two more years of hardship until they met again in Portugal and could return to the United States.
More than a half-century later, the couple's story has been told in "The Lives of Alice Pothron," a book by New Zealand author Jenny Harrison published by Lamplighter Press.
"Everyone who has ever heard the story, without fail, has said, 'You've got to have a book written,'" said Evelyne Pothron, the couple's daughter and a longtime Alameda resident. "Now it has finally happened."
Emile Pothron was working as a hair stylist at the White House -- a legendary department store on Grant Street in San Francisco -- and Alice was a dress designer when they traveled to Europe on the eve of World War II, their daughter said.
"They were going home to France, and they were visiting family," she said. "They thought it would be for just a few weeks. They felt safe."
Alice Pothron learned she was pregnant with Evelyne after they arrived.
"They were worried something would happen as they were traveling back to America," Evelyne Pothron said, noting that her mother had a history of miscarriages. "They felt it would be safer for her to rest and stay in bed until after she gave birth."
Evelyne Pothron was born in June 1939. Three months later, Germany invaded Poland. Not only was traveling immediately difficult, but Emile Pothron was drafted into the French army. Author Jenny Harrison tells the couple's story mostly as fiction, fleshing out what actually happened with passages of what people may have said and thought.
"It was sometimes necessary to imagine, on the basis of history and personality, how the protagonists would have acted and reacted," Harrison said in her introduction. "Having 'lived' with the characters for nearly three years, I believe I got it right."
The author met Evelyne Pothron in September 2009, when both were aboard a cruise ship traveling between Hawaii and Tahiti. What began as a getting-to-know-you conversation led to a string of emails and phone calls after the voyage as Harrison worked from New Zealand to write the book. She also carried out research in France.
After France fell in May 1940, Emile Pothron was taken prisoner and held at the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris. Alice Pothron remained with Evelyne in the family home at Paron in the country's Burgundy region. She was far from safe: German soldiers turned the house into a makeshift barracks, forcing Alice Pothron to cook and clean for them. She was also sexually assaulted. The shining leather of the soldiers' boots remains a vivid memory, Evelyne Pothron said.
"We would shelter in the wine cellar when there was bombing or some kind of trouble," she said. "It was dark, no lights. I remember that, and playing hopscotch."
In November 1940, Emile Pothron escaped from the military hospital and made his way to Lisbon. He had told his wife to search for him there if they lost contact with one another. Alice Pothron decided to flee France after the United States entered the war, setting off on foot with Evelyne and climbing the Pyrenees mountains to reach Spain and Portugal.
"We slept in haystacks and in barns," Evelyne Pothron said. "We walked, and it was winter. I don't know how my mother did it."
Emile and Alice Pothron reunited at the American consulate. The couple arrived back in New York City in June 1942 aboard the SS Drottningham, a Swedish charter ship sometimes used by the American legation.
What helps make their story extraordinary, Evelyne Pothron said, was that her parents had already overcome obstacles before they met: Her mother was raised in a French orphanage, while her father left home at age 11, lived on the streets of Paris and served in the French army during World War I.
He was working on a freighter when he jumped ship in New York City and met Alice. The couple eventually settled in Alameda, where Emile Pothron worked as a mechanic at the former Naval Air Station. Evelyne Pothron, a retired child care provider, still lives in the family home. She was the couple's only child.
Emile Pothron died at age 78 in January 1979. Alice died of a cerebral hemorrhage in June 1955. She was 51.
"My father said he only had one love in his life," Evelyne Pothron said. "It was her. He never married again. I think it's because they had been through so much together."
"The Lives of Alice Pothron" by Jenny Harrison ($14; Lamplighter Press) is available through Amazon.com and at Books Inc., 1344 Park St., Alameda.