Brave and contrary women in wartime

My mother’s mother died in the 1980s and I really wish I had listened better when she told me things about her life. I loved her so much, and I definitely paid attention when she spoke to me. I mean, I didn’t ignore her, but I have forgotten a lot of details as, it seems, have my sisters.

What I do seem to recall is that she was some kind of nurse who took care of soldiers during the war. It must have been World War I; she was born in 1898. I remember her going into some detail about lancing a boil, which was disgusting and horrifying and riveting enough that my 7-year-old mind really listened up and stored it in a sacred drawer in my memory bank.

But when I asked my sister, she said that she isn’t sure it was soldiers our grandmother was caring for and doesn’t remember anything about lancing boils. She thinks it was victims of the 1919 flu epidemic that my grandmother was reminiscing about and recalls her saying that she herself never got the flu, despite a good deal of exposure to many infected patients. As for World War I, my sister thinks she may have mentioned “some duties involving air raid warnings, like going out, blowing a whistle or something.”

So much for oral history.

The reason I am suddenly so curious about all this is that I have been on a spate of reading historical fiction, specifically work that highlights the contributions and adventures of women during World War I and II. It all started for me when my tennis friend Kathy told me about this Facebook group she is a part of called “Historical Fiction Book Lovers.” I think it was there that I saw a book called “The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn that had hundreds of likes and comments, and something about it intrigued me so I ordered it.

But let me digress a moment to say that you might be surprised by what constitutes historical fiction. As they say, the hoop you have to jump through is bigger than you think, when it comes to this category. For instance, “Lessons in Chemistry” is considered historical fiction, as it takes place in the 1950s. “All the Light We Cannot See” and “A Gentleman in Moscow” are also considered historical fiction. Same with “Lady Tan’s Circle of Women,” which I reviewed recently for this paper, and even Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls.” So many books I have read and loved are considered historical fiction, and I never really thought about it. “Moloka’i” by Alan Brennert about a child who, at age 6, is discovered to have leprosy, “the separating sickness,” and is condemned to live on the island of Moloka’i in the leper colony there, is also historical fiction. (I loved that book.)

As I write, I am thinking my sister’s and my understanding of my grandmother’s early nursing career likely falls into the category of historical fiction, as our memories are so darned fuzzy and who knows what is true.

Anyway, “The Alice Network” is a really good story. A really good book. The writing isn’t fancy or especially “literary,” but it’s solid and enjoyable. I found the characters to be engaging, unique and extremely well developed. I finished the book about three weeks ago and find myself still thinking of some of them as though they are rather good friends I spent some time with a while back, which to me is pretty good evidence they were well written, well conjured.

The novel opens in May 1947 in Southampton, England, with the line: “The first person I met in England was a hallucination.” Good beginning, eh? This “hallucination” proves to be a driving force in the plot and personal mission of the narrator, Charlie St. Clair, who is, at the beginning of the story, traveling with her mother to Switzerland for an appointment in Vevey to take care of a pesky little inconvenience no one wants to talk about that is three months along and growing.

Says Charlie, “1947 was hell for any girl who would rather work calculator problems than read Vogue, any girl who would rather listen to Edith Piaf than Artie Shaw, and any girl with an empty ring finger but a rounding belly.”

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that things don’t really go according to Mrs. St. Clair’s plan, which was all about taking care of the “Little Problem” in Vevey and then, after the “Appointment,” hopping to Paris for a bit of clothes shopping before getting Charlie back to school in the fall with a chic new look and no one the wiser. However, Charlie, obsessed with finding her dear and long-lost cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France before the war began, and who everyone but Charlie believes has died, cuts loose from Mummy and has herself an amazing adventure.

When Charlie encounters Eve Gardiner, an eccentric and mostly drunken recluse living in London, the novel switches to a dual narrative, swinging back and forth between events that occurred beginning in 1915, when Eve was a British spy, and 1947, when we initially meet our narrator Charlie.

Eve had been part of the Alice Network, a group of mostly female spies working against the Germans in France. Her story involves code names and collaborators, profiteers and recruiters, deception, seducers and all kinds of adventure and intrigue, all based on but not limited to historical fact, on the World War I spy ring called the Alice Network, which was active during the war in Belgium and German-occupied France. Apparently, several of the characters are based on actual historical figures.

I found this novel to be an excellent read, lively, entertaining and eye opening. I was not aware so many women were involved in World War I and had no idea about this spy program and all that it entailed. All that these brave women sacrificed to serve their countries and protect their families, loved ones and communities. An exciting, gripping, extremely satisfying read. Highly recommend. And you might want to check out that Facebook group if you have a yen for fiction based on fact, on things that happened in the past.

An author whose work I have enjoyed that I also learned from the “Historical Fiction Book Lovers” page is Jacqueline Winspear’s famous Maisie Dobbs series, about psychologist, investigator and nurse, Maisie Dobbs. This series is comprised of 19 volumes and has won many awards, including New York Times Notable Book for the Year, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and so on. “The White Lady,” published in 2023, is not part of that, or any series. It is apparently a story that had been on the author’s mind since childhood days. “There came a point,” she says, “when I just had to begin writing, because the main character … began taking up a lot of space in my mind.”

This main character, Elinor White, we meet in 1947 Britain. World War II was over by then, but, as Winspear writes, “Many of the privations of wartime were not as bad as those of the peace that followed.” There was rationing and jewelry store raids, shoplifting, traumatized soldiers returning from battle and a lot of organized crime. “It is this world that Elinor White has to navigate,” writes Winspear, “when she leaves a hard-won quiet country life to go to the aid of a young couple and their child.”

We learn early in the novel that Elinor White is not merely some nice, reclusive older woman, as her neighbors assume, but a former resistance operative and highly trained killer. Though she aspires to a life of peace and anonymity in her “grace-and-favor” house, her affection and concern for the family next door, especially the little girl Susie, and her determination to protect them from the husband’s violent family bring her smack dab into the middle of the London world of organized crime, as well as encounters with colleagues from her own past.

I loved this book. Many on the “Historical Fiction Book Lovers” page commented that they didn’t like it as much as the Maisie Dobbs series, but I found it to be very well written and quite a page turner. It has a bit of an old-fashioned, gentle feel. Pleasant to read. Exciting but soothing. Simple but artfully told. And offering a glimpse into a world that was once very real with a focus (like “The Alice Network”) on a courageous, skilled female character who played an important part in the war.

As for my grandmother, maybe someday I will write a book about her. But as I believe I mentioned above, it would be largely fiction, due to my sisters’ and my poor listening and retention skills. But it could be a doozy. I could begin it with the lancing of a boil. Or maybe better, with a trigger warning. Wait for it.

But in the meantime, do consider taking these two excellent books about brave women in wartime on a whirl. I think you will enjoy immersing yourself, as I did, in their loves, their fears, their battles, their relationships, their intelligence, their incredible strength and ingenuity, and their inspired and inspiring contrariness.