I enjoyed this book on several levels. I learned a lot about the English experience during WWII and about the racism that existed there that I had never known before. Through the interaction of several characters that play a major part in the story, the war years come to life. It is through the experiences and beliefs of Mary, Tom, Alistair, Zachary, and Hilda, from different walks of life, that the atmosphere in England and the theater of war is made truly visible to the reader.
The story is narrated expertly by Luke Thompson using a unique voice for each character which was individually discernible and identifiable. The romantic side of the story may be a bit too obvious, but the details of the war were graphic and descriptive giving the reader a credible picture of life there, at that time. The reader is placed right into the thick of things with bombs falling, soldiers dying and the citizenry suffering the exigencies of war in their own individual ways, according to their circumstances. There were shortages; there was destruction coupled with grave injuries and death, but there was also love and romance, compassion and dedication, all existing in varying degrees side by side, depending on where one lived and the class from which one came.
Mary marched to the beat of her own drummer, even as an 18 year old teenager. She defied the rules of her upper class hierarchy. She attempted to join the war effort and was given a teaching post, although she had absolutely no experience. She realized that she loved working with the children but was fired because she treated Zachary, a black student, with what was thought of as excessive kindness and concern; she simply treated him as she would treat any of the white students. She was basically disciplined for her compassion and honesty and broad minded acceptance of all people and their equal ability to succeed.
When she met Tom, who was in charge of hiring, she begged for another position. He was from a different class, but he was smitten by her. Their romance blossomed, and he subsequently created a teaching position for her, even when the budget was tight. Together they helped those young evacuees rejected by the families in the countryside because they were deficient, disabled or black. She introduced her best friend Hilda, not quite as lovely or socially adept as Mary, to Tom’s friend, Alistair. Alistair was an art restorer from the appropriate upper class. When Alistair and Mary met, there was a spark that ignited the chemistry between the two of them instead. Mary resisted it, at first, because she loved Tom, and because Hilda was angry that she was once again attempting to take a beau away from her. Alistair is soon shipped out to Malta where he experiences the brutal hardships of war on that small barren island.
The author made the class consciousness of the Brits extremely transparent using the views of the various characters. Even some of the more broad and open minded upper classes viewed the blacks as “less than”. Those in the lower classes who happened to be white also felt that way. Their ignorance about the color of skin was displayed when one character queried Zachary about how he got his skin color. She wondered if he was burned. She wondered if he was in pain. It seems absurd, but I think that the author must have researched this attitude and is using that reality to enhance his fictional tale about England during WWII, a war that was carried on for several years without the help of America, whose eventual entry signaled a more positive end to the combat. The upper classes were shielded from the actual fog of war by the frivolity of their own lives as they knitted socks for the soldiers but still managed to carry on with their social lives and causes, parties and balls.
During that time in England, white children were being given every advantage over black children, regarding education, safety, food and shelter. Black children were looked down upon, called names and abused by those who thought they were superior to them. The less fortunate were expected to suffer the dangers of the war while those more fortunate were eagerly evacuated. The rescue of white children went smoothly while those deficient or racially unacceptable were rejected and sent back home. Helping blacks was frowned upon by the upper classes and those that did suffered from the tongue lashings and gossip of their peers. Sanctioned injustice was the norm.
Women, at that time, were not independent and were expected to behave properly, not to fraternize with people of color, not to go to places where they congregated and surely not to teach them since it was believed they could not learn. At the same time, the people of color did not want to draw attention to themselves because they did not want to upset the apple cart which allowed them to live in peace in London. It was a fragile situation requiring the walking of a tightrope by all.
The atrocities of war were painted sharply; some images were of cruelties and a kind of violence that I had never dreamed of or heard of before. The brutality of the citizens toward their captured enemy has not often been revealed, rather the enemy’s cruelty has been stressed above all else. Still while the anger of the citizenry may have been justified in such hostile times, their barbaric behavior was not. The author clearly shows the force of a mob mentality out of control. He also highlighted the fact that doing the right thing does not always bring about the right result. When the soldier, Alistair, tried to stop a mob from torturing an injured enemy pilot, he himself was seriously wounded by that same pilot while he was trying to protect and help him.
I loved the part of the book that featured the bantering back and forth in letters and/or dialogue between the characters. The humor lightened the heavy mood of the scenes of war and deprivation in which those in active and inactive combat were equally injured. Some were soon dying and some were starving in London. They were starving and dying on Malta. They were sitting ducks there, suffering their injuries, death, privation and exhaustion without outside help. As the conditions in London worsened and the bombings increased, the experiences of both Londoners and the soldiers on the battlefield were sharply defined by the author. The hazards of war, with the haphazardness of personal survival, had to be faced by each of them in one capacity or another everyday. The disillusionment about the purpose and the end results of the war was also clearly explored and exposed.
I think it was obvious how the book would end from the beginning, partly because of our knowledge of history, but also because of the way the story was rolled out. It was often enhanced with a touch of humor and the information provided was interesting. The romance lightened the subject matter by exposing choices that all readers could identify with and understand. The war united people of different classes and different races, but would it last when the war ended? Would the romances begun survive afterwards in the light of the new day?
The book truly illustrates the effect of war on those fighting it and those observing it, those drawn to nationalism engaging in the fight directly and those drawn to defending their country in more intellectual pursuits. Each of the characters risked their lives in a different way; each faced danger and tried to rise to the occasion when necessary to preserve and protect those less fortunate and those defending them from their enemies. This is a book worth reading for its war perspective and its insight into the way people viewed it and treated each other during that time. It might make the reader wonder if society has changed all that much since then.