REVIEW: The English Air by D.E. Stevenson
A son makes a devastating choice.
Franz von Heiden, son of a Nazi official and an English mother, comes to England early in 1938 to visit his English cousins – and to study them. He is both accepted and entertained by Wynne Braithwaite’s family and friends. But the peace and abundance which he finds about him are not what he had been taught to expect.
These people are not the decadent enemy; their casual talk and happy lives betray no weakness. Franz is disturbed – his reports to his father at home are not what had been expected there. Finding himself in love with Wynne, he is further troubled at the thought of his mother’s broken life in Germany. Would Wynne suffer the same slow death?
As tremendous events succeed each other – Munich, Czechoslovakia and war itself – Franz’s dilemma grows increasingly acute. His final devastating choice is a thrilling climax to a moving book. Written in 1940, this book is a fascinating insight into the interwar years.
When I saw a new(ly reissued) D. E. Stevenson book out, I snapped it up. And then I read the blurb and had a moment of hesitation. I put the book on the back burner until the publisher sent out an email with a snippet from a letter between Stevenson and her agent. The book was written in 1940, and initially rejected for serialization due to fear of its political content and of how English readers would view a sympathetic German character, especially one whose father is a Nazi. Stevenson wrote that Franz is based on a young German woman who had stayed with friends of Stevenson and who started out, as Franz does, as a believer in what he’d been told and taught about the Nazi party. But over the course of her stay, she changed and what Franz utters in shame and dismay when Hitler invades Prague, “”What is that man doing to my poor country” is what this woman said to Stevenson. Reassured that no red-hot Nazi was going to get the girl, I picked up the book again.
Young Franz von Heiden is sent to England in 1938 by his father to visit relatives. His English mother’s cousin will be his hostess and as Elsie was dearer to Sophie than a sister, Sophie is delighted to offer her hospitality. Her daughter and brother-in-law aren’t initially so sure of Franz. Wynne is young, lovely, charming, and living a carefree life with her friends playing tennis, swimming, getting up dance parties, and acting as captain of the local Girl Guides. She finds Franz a bit stuck in the mud at first – so earnest, so correct – but when she spies the uncertainty he has about fitting in and how desperately unsure he is of doing the wrong thing, she warms to him.
Soon Franz is a part of the group around Wynne but in addition to bettering his command of the English language, he’s also there to take a look at the English and report back to his father. Otto has set his son to mingling with and discovering the mindset of the English which he feels will be more useful than setting a spy on the task. At first Franz is puzzled that no one appears to be discussing Germany much and his initial attempts at starting conversations to elicit their viewpoints goes nowhere. Slowly, he begins to understand that the English are not as fixated on Germany as the Germans are in return.
But when Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia crushes Franz’s hopes that peace can be maintained between his homeland and this country he’s coming to love and covers Franz with shame for the lies Hitler told and how this betrays Germany’s honor, what will Franz do?
Something that struck me while reading this is how Stevenson talks about the horrors of war. The older characters had lived through World War I and with a beloved relation living in Germany during it, Sophie was torn when hearing of the starvation there. As her mother tells her that this was a weapon used, Wynne is horrified that anyone could be glad others were suffering.This glimpse of a world in which people can be so cruel to each other is almost unreal to her. Sadly I immediately thought of how in 1940 Stevenson couldn’t know of the full magnitude of horrors that would be perpetrated during this war. Then I thought about how Sophie’s wish that her daughter and son, an officer in the Royal Navy, would never know war was also doomed.
Stevenson does a marvelous job of portraying the national differences between her British and German characters without turning anyone into a caricature. Franz’s bewilderment at jokes he doesn’t quite get and behavior that mystifies him sets him apart. Then after speaking to Sophie’s brother-in-law – who is an interesting character himself though I’ll leave him as a bit of a mystery – and being around these laughing and gay young English people, he starts to clue in. The English aren’t the weak and pallid people he’s been told to expect. After all, they have built and maintained an Empire and weaklings can’t do that. They’re just not interested in keeping up old scores. As Sophie tells him, people here just do their duty and aren’t interested in making a fuss. Franz is desperately worried when a policeman unexpectedly comes to see Wynne for she and her friends freely discuss and criticize the government and officials – something that would be viewed as subversive in Germany. To his amazement, not only does this not concern anyone but the police are nothing like the gestapo in Germany nor are there concentration camps in Britain.
Franz’s change of view is slow but steady. He’s intelligent and pays attention to what is going on around him. He loves his country, initially viewing England as nice but not quite what he’s used to, but he begins to see the loveliness of the English countryside and how the very air has a different quality. “The air of England is very wholesome” he tells Wynne. He discovers that he doesn’t mind being half-English and that he’s in love with Wynne. But of course with the war that we readers know is coming, there will be problems with this HEA.
One of the other issues with this story is that a lot of it is about the waning idyllic days before World War II alters the world. There are tennis games, dances, sunbathing, picnicking, journeys across England by car. And that’s all before Franz leaves to go back to Germany where he discovers some other home truths from his Aunt and an elderly neighbor whom Stevenson also modeled on a real person. This is all nice but does tend to meander and not move the plot forward quickly. Then almost as the book is over, Something Happens which seems to wrap up Franz’s future and the very, very brief romance almost too easily. Yet, the reader is left with both of those unfinished since when she wrote it, Stevenson had no idea how things would end. The stop is just that quick and it left me unsettled. I will mentally write Franz and Wynne a long and happy life together but that’s not what’s here. B-