REVIEW: In Love and War by Liz Trenow
In the summer of 1919, British Ruby is mourning her beloved husband Bertie, missing since 1916. His grief-stricken parents ask one last task of her: travel to the Belgian battlefields to find Bertie’s grave, and with it the peace that will come with knowing his final resting place.
Alice, an American, knows in her heart that her brother Sam is alive – but after he signed up under a false name, no news has been heard from him since he arrived in Belgium. Leaving her life and her fiancé behind in Washington, Alice sets sail for Europe, promising herself that she will not rest until she finds her brother.
Martha has risked everything to travel to Belgium. A German, she knows she will be met with neither sympathy nor understanding. But her son lies somewhere in Belgian soil, and her husband’s dying wish was for his grandfather’s bravery medal to be passed down to his son. It is a promise Martha will do anything to keep.
When the lives of these three women collide, they begin to question whether that which unites them could be greater than their differences. As an unlikely friendship blossoms, their story reveals their untiring determination to find out what happened to the men they love, no matter how painful the truth.
Dear Ms. Trenow,
Last year I enjoyed “The Hidden Thread” so much that I jumped at the chance to read your latest book. The blurb seemed to be more of a historical fiction/women’s fiction story than a romance which did prove to be the case with the story weaving back and forth between characters from several of the countries involved on the western front.
The time frame of the story is fast – 5 days of the tour and visit to Belgium with tiny lead in bits to get our three women there. All have lost and all are searching for something – a grave, remembrances, peace or forgiveness. Three different people – a young English widow, an American sister and a middle aged German mother – set out to discover what might have happened to a loved one. I’m with Ruby initially about the idea to “tour” a battlefield. Sounds ghoulish until true purpose is revealed – to find closure and also help devastated Belgian towns begin to rebuild with tourist money.
Ruby’s mask of grief is so durable now that she feels unsure of who she really is anymore but she is scared of traveling so far from home, alone. She’s accepted that Bertie is dead and no longer dreams of a miraculous reunion but her in-laws are grasping at the séance medium’s prediction that Bertie is “still with them.” Perhaps the fact that her memory of him is beginning to blur at the edges helps protect her. But she isn’t enthusiastic about the trip.
Alice is the one who decided to pursue information by going on this tour. Her parents tried to dissuade her from leaving her recuperating fiancé but after all their efforts in the US and contacting the Canadians has failed, she has to know what happened to her little brother who ran away and joined the Canadian forces before the US entered the war. Alice is shocked at the privations and rationing the encounters in Britain and Belgium. She lives with the guilt that she should have done more to keep Sam from leaving but she also wants a last little bit of freedom before marrying.
Martha’s trip is partly to find her son’s grave but also to fulfill her promise to her husband and give her younger son Otto some final memory of his adored elder brother. She had been told that Germans were now free to travel but learns otherwise at the Belgian border. Her cover story of being Swiss and searching for a sister’s “son” finally gets her across. Martha had thought the privations suffered because of the food blockade enacted on Germany were bad but is horrified at the destruction she finds the closer she gets to the battlefields.
As the three women pursue their quests, they go through changing emotions – grief, fear, anger and desolation. Interactions with people who were there during the war begin to give Ruby, Alice and Martha a sense of what their loved ones endured and finally a bit of peace. They have to persevere and stay strong – Ruby for herself and her in-laws, Alice for her parents and Martha for her remaining son.
Ruby changes into a woman who has actually dared to go on this journey and travel so far from home. There is some British snark and ruffled feathers at Americans; Ruby initially finds Alice too loud, too brash and too complaining of conditions in Belgium. But it’s Alice’s brashness that uncovers a source of information and arranges a way for Ruby and her to stay in a place to find their answers. The more Ruby learns of the war and wartime conditions in Belgium, the more confused she gets. Why did England enter the war and what was gained for the cost paid? Then the site of one of the cemeteries stuns her – how will she ever find Bertie’s grave amid the thousands there? The realization that the whole countryside is a graveyard horrifies her.
Martha discovers her misconceptions that German soldiers were the main victims of poison gas attacks. She’s angry at the deaths caused in Germany by the lack of food and slightly bitter that Allies have food now. She’s also humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles plus furious at the politicians and Kaiser for starting the war in the first place then leaving Germany to her fate. How will her nation ever recover and why did so many have to die?
Three miraculous resolutions in five days? The way these happen sounds realistic and plausible and with the time constraints and plot I can see why things had to be so compressed. But in real life it seems – with the ghastly mess things were so soon after the war – that this is probably too fast. Our three women find solace, often from unlikely places and people. The message they – and readers – are left with is forgiveness and the universal need to put enmity in the past to build bridges to peace. Yeah, I was feeling fairly Kumbayaish by the time I finished it. I also felt fairly good about what kind of future the women have. Ruby has found a purpose for her empty time, Alice realizes the worth of the man she left behind and Martha and Otto might just be able to avoid the coming war. B