I am not sure how a book about the ravages of war can be called delightful, but it is the first adjective that comes to mind when I think of Cleave’s novel. It is filled with British humor, making the reader laugh as the British do at the most dire situations, an example I guess of their famous, “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude.
Thus when two men friends fall in love with the same woman, they carry on with the roles their country has assigned and the war decides their respective fates.
Alistair, an art preservationist, becomes a soldier who is sent to Africa. In the midst of battle, he finds his command post in carnage, and since the stone building contained the blast, officers were scorched in place.
He notices that, “The colonel sat upright at a camp table, bloodless and gray, the line of his mustache expressing indignation, the handset of the field telephone still clasped in his hand” — as if he were calling down to the desk to say, “This is a dreadful hotel and I wish to complain about the incessant noise.” Very British as in stay calm and get on with dying if one must.
His friend, Tom, remains in London in charge of the schools, which are pretty much devoid of students. He advertises for teachers to instruct the remaining few, finding an unlikely applicant.
Enter our heroine, Mary, a pampered socialite who decides she wants to do something for the war effort. Her only offer is to be a teacher which she looks forward to with great enthusiasm until she finds out that the only children she will have are those who were not acceptable to the families in the rural areas where London’s children were sent. Not evacuated were the crippled, mentally handicapped, and one American Negro boy. Such was her challenge.
She taught them the basic subjects but on Fridays allowed dancing, singing, and work on art projects “to any child who could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the war had not been their idea.” The children, of course loved Miss.
North for her diligence, creativity, openness, and simply because they could tell that she loved them as much as they loved her. She was following the axiom of the famous American educator, John Dewey, to take each child from where she found them — academically and socially — to as far as they could go under her tutelage.
Regardless of the hurts and tragedies that befell the group she did just that. The reader sees the profound bravery of both adults and children and knows or feels that their errors in judgement or human folly can be or ought to be forgiven.
This is a story of redemption. Critics disagree in regard to its depth, but I believe that, like all narratives, it depends on what the reader brings of themselves to the experience that influences their perception of depth. Consider epiphanies in your life whose substance might be meaningless to others. Since reading is a vicarious experience much of its meaning varies with the individual.
Redemption may be the overall theme but there is also a romance, a war story, a look at various kinds of friendship and social commentary directly relating to why we fought WWII.
The tale is one of contrasts and comparisons between male and female experiences of war, and how lives in England were influenced by class, color, money, culture, talents, attitudes, and how each person did “carry on,” as it were.
Actually some of the wartime experiences of Chris Cleave’s grandparents were the basis and inspiration here. Such a unique view of wartime experiences would make an excellent movie.
The contrasts between soldiers in a besieged city and those suffering on the homefront is powerful.
Michaeline Chance-Reay is an emeritus professor of Education and W omen Studies at Kansas State University .