Although I was reading several books at the time I began this one, I put them all aside to finish The Soldier’s Wife. I didn’t expect it to have so profound an effect on me. With tremendous insight into the conflicting emotions one must experience when under the heel of an invading army, a captive in one’s own homeland, not knowing exactly how to react to please the invader and yet not wanting to displease your neighbors, Leroy explored the depth of depravity and the height of nobility from the most unexpected sources. She did all this without creating maudlin, hackneyed scenes, too trite to read about. Although the subject matter is not new, the story felt as if it had never been told before, in quite this way.
The time is 1940, and on one of the Channel Islands, Guernsey, with the Germans literally at their gate, many Guernsians scramble to escape or send their children to safety. Vivienne de la Mare, after agonizing over her decision, decides it is time to leave the island with her children. This is her husband’s home, not hers and he is away fighting for Britain. She has a sister in London and they are welcome there. Her children, Blanche, who is 14, and Millie, who is 9, are meant to leave with her on a boat to England. Her husband’s mother is taken to a friend’s home, along with their beloved cat, but when they arrive at the pier, there are too many people waiting for the tiny boat at the dock, and shocked that they are expected to leave in that tiny vessel, Vivienne impulsively leaves the queue and goes back home. There she finds, although the war has yet to reach the shores of Guernsey, it has already begun because someone has ransacked the house, robbed them and destroyed her heirlooms, just for the sake of it, a random act of vandalism by some thug taking advantage of the war situation. From this point, the story grows into a tale of love and betrayal, violence and compassion, survival and death. It is at once a war story and a love story, but also a story of how ordinary people simply try to survive in the most trying of times.
It is a tender novel which touches on all human emotions; it is about despair, loneliness, courage and hope. Eugene, Vivienne’s husband, has long been absent in their marriage, not only because of the war, and Vivienne’s hunger soon causes her to begin a secret love affair with one of the occupying Germans, Gunther, a sensitive, lonely man, apart and aside from him being the enemy soldier that he is, who fills a need within her that has been unfulfilled for too long. During one of their trysts, he makes a simple but profound statement which explains the behavior of many during wartime, which may seem like cowardice, but is really simply an act of survival. It is simple statements like these, which appear throughout the book, that explore human nature more fully and make this something other than a typical love story or war story.
When Gunther describes how he felt watching his father beating his brother, knowing that instead of hiding he could interfere and help him, we learn that he knows a simple truth. While he is beating his brother, he is safe, he isn’t beating him. That statement may indeed be the reason why so many in wartime, or in peacetime, witnessing a crime, remain silent and do nothing. If the person committing evil is hurting someone else, than they are safe, and they never think of what comes next…that they may be next, when there are no other victims. We feel the simple truth of what Millie says when she replies to her mother about not being too friendly to the enemy, the Germans, that Max, is not a German, he is simply Max. In another time, after the war, he is, indeed, simply Max. When Max treats Millie when she is ill, we see the humanity that resides within him as well as the depravity that allows him to bear witness to such inhuman behavior towards other human beings without an outcry in their defense.
The story never becomes too maudlin or too unbearable to read about, for although as the novel unfolds with simple clarity, and the confusion and contradictions experienced by the characters, during wartime on an occupied island, explode in front of you with every scene, not one syllable is wasted as human emotion and loyalty are explored from every angle, and not one word is overused or hackneyed.
With compassion and empathy, we watch the character’s different efforts to survive. The author’s uncanny ability to express all that went on without judgment or undue harshness for the errors in judgment made by the characters, and the circumstances that existed then, is truly a gift to the reader. The conflict and horror of war are apparent, and yet the Holocaust is not mentioned by name.
We learn that within each of us may reside a hero, as when Vivienne hides and feeds Kirill trying to save him, as well as a coward as when others turn away, fearing for their own well being, turning others in to save themselves. Both traits may be lurking within the same person, and only the right circumstances will draw either of them to the forefront.
How do we know how we will act in similar situations. I think the author makes us think about that? I think she makes us question our own capacity for heroism or cowardice. Will we turn away because they aren’t coming for us or rise to the occasion because we know it is only a matter of time before we are next.
Is it true that soldiers merely follow orders and are not responsible for the degradation and depravity of wartime circumstances, not really responsible for their actions? Or are we guilty of turning a blind eye to the ugliness to save ourselves? When the scene with Captain Max Richter and the butterfly, unfolds…I was reminded of a famous poem written by a Holocaust victim “ I Never Saw Another Butterfly”. The captain is remarking, to Millie, about the beauty and abundance of the butterflies on the island of Guernsey while the victims of Hitler’s demonic mind were lamenting the loss of even seeing a butterfly around them in Thereisenstadt. I wondered whether or not the author was aware of the poignancy of that scene, of how that butterfly was a symbol of so much for so many, in completely different circumstances, when she wrote those lines.
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone. . . .
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.