Tag Archives: World War I

A Certain Age

9780062404978_p0_v3_s192x300    Although set in the nineteen twenties with smatterings of The Great Gatsy, Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age reminded me more of an Oliver Goldsmith comedy of manners (She Stoops to Conquer) or an Oscar Wilde farce.

Married to a wealthy philandering husband,  middle-aged socialite Theresa Marshall has her own love interest – a handsome young aviator, Captain Octavian Rofrano.  All is well until she sends her Rofrano,  as her brother’s emissary – his “cavalier” (think Miles Standish) to propose to young Sophie Fortescue on her brother Ox’s behalf.  Rofrano promptly falls in love with Sophie.

The story follows the plot of Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, using the love triangle with the same character names, and capitalizing on the frivolous diversions of the rich.  Williams uses New York City after World War I as her setting and substitutes a murder mystery for the scheming servants in Strauss’s plot to sustain the action.

Although the action begins slowly, the plot thickens with clever insertions from the New York Times Herald gossip columnist, Patty Cake, who neatly summarizes in two or three pages what has taken chapters to reveal.  The romantic liaisons are sometimes more humorous than titillating – the lover hiding under the bed – but Williams succeeds in maintaining the sensuous aura of her woman of a certain age, the older Theresa, seducing her much younger lover.

Just as in the opera, all ends happily – well, in this case except for a few dead bodies.

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner

Geoff Dyer in his interview in “By the Book” for the New York Times identifies his favorite short story – Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner.  Dyer summarizes the story as he remember it:

“A mother goes to a large war cemetery on the Western Front in the aftermath of the First World Was, looking for the grave of her son. She meets the gardner who is taking care of the cemetery. The sense of vast and unendurable grief is all the more powerful for being expressed with such restraint and economy.”

images      I found Kipling’s short story online but connected with different aspects – we all interpret what we read with what we know and what we need.

  • “Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope… “
  • Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her — in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy…

‘My nephew,’ said Helen. ‘But I was very fond of him.’
‘Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death! What do you think?’
‘Oh, I don’t — I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing,’ said Helen…
‘Perhaps that’s better,’ the woman answered. ‘The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well, I won’t worry you any more.’”

Link to Kipling’s “The Gardner” here

Wolf Hollow

9781101994825_p0_v2_s192x300     Bullies are mean and terrorizing.  Lauren Wolk’s coming of age novel Wolf Hollow demonstrates how ruthless and damaging lies and bullies can be.  Targeted for a young audience, the story’s message is appropriate for adults, reminding them not only of their responsibility to be aware of prejudicial labelling and scapegoating but also of the consequences of intolerance when left unchecked.

Although the story is set  in Western Pennsylvania in 1943, the theme is universal and could be happening today.  Annabelle, a precocious twelve year old who lives on a farm with her brothers and parents, narrates the story.  Betty, the new mean girl at school, who has been sent to live with her grandparents because she is “incorrigible” threatens Annabelle and her brothers; Betty is a “dark-hearted girl,” without morals or remorse, who beats Annabelle with a stick and breaks a bird’s neck.

Toby, the unshaven and tattered reclusive veteran of World War I,  roams the hills with his empty guns on his back; his mental health and morals are suspect and neighbors tolerate him as long as he stays out of the way.  But Annabelle’s mother, as well as Annabelle, see a harmless kind man with scars on his hand from the war, who lives a solitary life recovering from the horrors he faced as a soldier.  When Toby comes to Annabelle’s rescue from Betty,  Betty’s vengeful lies escalate to blame Toby for her own actions when she blinds a classmate and later tries to harm Annabelle’s brothers.

Betty’s determination to frame Toby awakens Annabelle’s protective instinct for the innocent man, and the plot turns into a series of soul-wrenching decisions and suspense as Betty unexpectedly disappears, and Annabelle determines her role in deciphering and exposing the truth.

The action escalates at the end, leading to a jarring but realistic conclusion.  Annabelle learns a lesson many adults are still grappling with:

“The stone made me aware for the first time that my life, however long, would amount to nothing more than a flicker. Not even a flicker. Not even a sigh…

And I decided that there might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Though try I would.

And that there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say.

But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried away with me that day:  If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

Beautifully written…a book adults should discuss…

 

 

 

Finding Winnie – 2016 Caldecott Award Winner

9780316324908_p0_v3_s192x300When you think of Winnie the Pooh, you may imagine the Disney character or the rumbling voice of Sterling Holloway, but Lindsay Mattick tells the real story of the bear in her 2016 Caldecott winning book – Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Illustrated by Sophie Blackwell, the story evolves into two tales: first, the saving of Winnie the bear cub from a trapper and his stint as the mascot of Captain Harry’s World War I regiment; next, as the bear in the London Zoo who played with Christopher Robin Milne “right inside her enclosure,” inspiring the little boy to rename his stuffed bear after her. Christopher Robin’s father, Alan Milne made Winnie famous by writing about the adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Mattock adds an “Album” at the back of the book, sharing family photos and the excerpt in the 1914 diary, identifying the day when Harry met Winnie – August 24th.  A picture of Christopher Robin and the real Winnie at the London Zoo in 1925 is included.

Canadians from Winnipeg are reminded of the bear’s roots and his savior, a local veterinarian World War I soldier, Captain Harry Colebourn, with a statue in Assiniboine Park.  Mattick, a descendant of Harry tells his story to her young son, his namesake, as a bedtime tale.                                   

“Sometimes the best stories are {true}.”

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The Summer Before the War

9780812993103_p0_v3_s192x300The cover of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War evokes a breezy romantic tale, but if you’ve read her last novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’ll know to expect more.  The key figure in the tale is Beatrice, aptly named for her Shakespearean qualities of intellect and strength, with her ability to manage her own life despite the hurdles thrown at women who dare to aspire to be financially independent.  Do I hear the ghost of Jane Austen whispering between the lines?

Beatrice, the daughter of an acclaimed professor, speaks several languages and has a formidable education, thanks to her father’s upbringing.  When he dies, she is forced to live with his family until she escapes to the position of Latin master at an East Sussex  country school in Rye outside of London.  Simonson sets the scene in the first part of the book with bucolic descriptions and a hint of a romance with the local medical student, Hugh, whose wealthy aunt is sponsoring Beatrice as the first woman Latin master in the school.  Beatrice secretly aspires to writing a novel to create an independent income; her inheritance can only be released when she marries but she is determined to make a life on her own.  The plot seems sublimely formulaic, as it did in the beginning of Pettigrew, until the war threatens normalcy and the refugees from Belgium appear – a switch reminiscent of Downton Abbey from the first season to the realities of World War I.

The shift to the war and its effects is abrupt, but the principal characters carry the story through the bloody front lines as well as the stark changes in the little town of Rye.  Lives are changed by the war.  Hugh enlists to use his medical training at the front, and rejects his ambition for a rich medical practice.   Simonson creates a nod to poet soldiers in her depiction of the Rupert Brooke like character of Daniel, Hugh’s best friend and cousin, and Snout, the bright student from the wrong side of the tracks, holds the promise of success, yet his life is not romanticized into a happy ending.

Simonson carefully addresses unpopular topics through her minor characters: Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee, whose father has more regard for preserving the culture than caring for his daughter; the mayor’s wife, who almost reverts to stereotypical prejudice and sadly leads others to her way of thinking; Agatha, the free thinking aunt of Hugh and Daniel, who quietly rebels against narrow mindedness, yet manages to preserve her place as the wife of Mr. Kent, the esteemed foreign officer.

Although the war overcomes the story in most of the book, the varied minor plot lines offer relief in romance, adventure, even some mystery.  And, in the end, The Summer Before the War is really about the people in this small town – representative of many who survived through the war to understand what is really important in their lives, and mourn missed opportunities for those who did not survive.

If you enjoyed Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and her Austen-like style of writing, you will find The Summer Before the War to be a satisfying read.

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand