The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Beatrice Nash arrives in the southeastern English village of Rye to teach Latin. Her sponsors, Agatha and John Kent, are quite welcoming, and their nephews, poet Daniel and surgeon-in-training Hugh, help her secure the position when a last-minute male candidate appears. Much prejudice against class, race, and gender are evident in 1914 Rye, and Beatrice chafes under her late father’s restrictive trust, especially when asked to explain why she bought new underclothes. When Belgian refugees arrive in town, Beatrice agrees to share her half-cottage with lovely Celeste, a professor’s daughter. The professor lodges with the local celebrity, an American author. The war soon comes to the village, as Hugh, Daniel, and Beatrice’s best student, a half-gypsy boy, go off to enlist. Daniel’s lover has broken up with him, and Hugh hopes to marry his mentor’s daughter after the war. The villagers start up new committees and have a parade to help raise funds for the war effort. The book starts out bright and charming, and gains depth and some darkness along with the war. Some minor characters are a bit clichéd, but I really cared about the main characters. I found this to be a very absorbing read and while not fast paced, it was still hard to put down, as was the author’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the village, including those of Beatrice’s cottage, her classroom full of sweaty young boys, and the professor’s study.
Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
Nell Stillman, a minor character in other novels by Sullivan, gets to shine here. This is Nell’s life story, from early married life to old age, all set in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota. After her husband dies suddenly, leaving her with young son Hillyard, Nell is relieved to be offered a job as third-grade teacher. However, teachers in the late 19th century and early 20th century were held to very high standards. Small town gossip can be harsh, and often anonymous. Nell brings a young cousin, Elvira, to live with Nell and Hilly in their apartment over Rabel’s Meat Market. A few years later, she leaves town in disgrace, and Nell is blamed. Nell’s main comfort in life, besides her loyal friends, is reading and re-reading the light, humorous novels of P.G. Wodehouse. My only complaint about this absorbing, character driven novel is that a book about the value of light humorous fiction shouldn’t be quite so serious and often melancholy in tone. I enjoyed reading about the changes in Harvester and in Nell’s apartment over the years including the building of a library, but two world wars and the depression do not make for light reading, especially as Hilly comes home from war shell-shocked. Nell does find love later in life, but a book that covers many decades inevitably includes several deaths. To cheer up I might read one of P.G. Wodehouse’s books (our library owns thirty, and they are quite funny, if now somewhat dated), but I plan to read more of Sullivan’s work, starting with The Cape Ann.
This prequel to the post World War I Ian Rutledge mystery series is a great introduction to the series. Charles Todd and his mother Caroline Todd jointly write all their mystery novels together. On a beautiful June day in 1914, Inspector Ian Rutledge proposes to Jean Gordon at a house party. Jean hopes for a Christmas wedding like her parents, and is frustrated that Ian travels so much investigating homicides for Scotland Yard. Ian is looking into suspicious deaths of men who have nothing in common except that they once lived in Bristol. Possibly related, a few gravestones in different cemeteries have been blackened. The day Ian proposes is the day Archduke Ferdinand is killed, and as Ian struggles to solve his cases and make plans for his future, the situation in Belgium gets worse and worse. Superintendent Bowles wants a quick resolution, and it will take a lot to persuade him that the deaths are connected. Many young men are eager to join the army, convinced that they’ll be home from France and Belgium by Christmas, and Jean urges Ian to consider enlisting, to get his share of the glory. Readers of other books in the series know the Ian will go off to war, and will survive, shell-shocked and haunted, uncertain if he can continue in his work for Scotland Yard and with his other plans for the future uncertain. It was enjoyable to read about the young inspector’s careful investigation, frustrated by the delays in getting information and even finding a telephone, and driving long hours to spend a little time with Jean.
I knew that the Lusitania was torpedoed during World War I, and that some Americans died, but I knew none of the details of the tragedy. The inevitability of the torpedo heading for the side of the Lusitania drives the reader anxiously through Erik Larson’s book, in which events that took place in 1915 feel like they just happened. The passengers come to life through letters, diaries, and artifacts. I learned what they wore, who they dined with, why they were traveling, and could almost see the children jumping rope on the deck. Most remarkably, Walther Schwieger, the commander of submarine U-22, is a memorable character, with his daunting task of patrolling British waters, avoiding mines and destroyers, trying to see without being seen. Will there be enough power in the batteries to surface when it’s safe, or enough diesel fuel to return safely to Germany? Will the torpedoes even fire?
Larson did a tremendous amount of research on the Lusitania, but allows none of it to slow the intensifying pace of the story. Three years after the Titanic struck an iceberg, the world knows that passenger liners are not indestructible. Warnings that Germany would not hesitate to attack British passenger ships appeared in New York newspapers on May 1, 1915, but the Lusitania still left New York that day, although delayed to accept passengers from another ship commandeered by the British navy. Some of the passengers were surprised that the “Lucy” wasn’t traveling as fast as it could; the war dictated saving coal by running only 3 out of 4 boilers. Captain Turner did receive some telegrams during the voyage, but they had conflicting advice on what to expect when he reached the war zone of Irish and British waters. What did the British Admiralty, headed by Winston Churchill, know about the movements of the U-22, and how was the war going without the help of the still-neutral United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, then courting Edith Galt? And what happened when the fog cleared as the Lusitania neared Ireland, and why was a fast British cruiser called back to port? Readers will turn the pages faster and faster to find out, and also to learn who lived and died, and what happened later because the Lusitania sank.
To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild
Here is my interpretation of how World War I got started. Think of it as an allegory:
A British Lord, a German/Austro-Hungarian Baron, a Russian peasant, a French Count and a Serbian all go into a bar. All of them are spoiling for a fight. After a few rounds of drinks, The German speaks first. “You British think you are so high and mighty with your empire and all, but soon it will be we, the Germans who will be running things.” “Now see here Fritz, that’s not very sporting, our navy is the envy of the world” replies the Englishman. Just at that moment the Serbian hauls off and punches the German in the nose. All swords are drawn, but the German cuts off the Serbian’s head before anyone else can act. “Sacre Bleu” cries the Frenchman, “It is war!” “I’ll second that” replies the Englishman, “as will I” says the Russian peasant. All sides eye each other warily. “To arms to arms” they all scream exiting the Bar.
Next year, 2014, will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Catastrophe that was “The War to end all Wars. Adam Hochschild’s book “To End all Wars” is one on the best written historical accounts of that war that I have ever read. As to what started it, there was hubris and delusional thinking all around. Each side thought that the other could be defeated in a matter of weeks. Each side was still fighting the previous war, which included Cavalry charges and hand to hand combat. This war would be the first Industrial war where machine guns and barbed wire upended an entire way of war for the European continent. Gallant soldiers marched into battle only to be butchered where they stood. The war turned static with troops bogged down in trenches each side trying to grind down the other side and turn the tide. After four years of mayhem and bloody massacres of men and animals the war was still a stalemate. But the countries behind the war were slowly dissolving into chaotic messes.
Unfortunately, the end of the war, facilitated by the entry of the United States, was as chaotic as its tenure, thus guaranteeing a renewal of hostilities further down the road.
If you are at all interested the World War I then by all means read this book. It will keep you enthralled.
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd
When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.