Richness of truth adds depth to historical novels

Review: Vivien Horler

The Lindbergh Nanny, by Mariah Fredericks (Headline Review)

The Light We Left Behind, by Tessa Harris (HQ/HarperCollins)

Two reviews for the price of one this week. I’ve combined them because while these novels tell vastly different stories, both are based on real-life events of the past century, and make absorbing reading.

The Lindbergh Nanny is the tale of the kidnapping and death of Charlie Lindbergh, the toddler son of the at-the-time beyond famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. In 1927, when he made the flight, he was just 25.

The story is told in the words of Betty Gow, Charlie’s Scottish nanny, who was employed by the family when Charlie was very young. She is told a nanny is needed as his mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, will often be away flying with her husband.

Betty makes friends with the other staff, and becomes close to Anne, although she is less charmed by the aviator. He has stern ideas on how to bring up children, one of which is that the baby is not to be mollycoddled. He must be put to bed at 7pm and no one is to go to him if he cries. At 10pm he must be woken for a toilet visit.

Betty finds these instructions difficult, but mostly complies. She loves Charlie and he loves her, to the extent that he tends to call for her first, before his mother.

Betty is startled by the level of interest in the family and the baby. People drift up the drive, and on one occasion a woman forces her way into the house. Betty is instructed to avoid photographers, and the baby’s picture must not be published.

One summer, when the Lindberghs are away, Betty and Charlie join Charlie’s grandparents at their beach house in Maine. There Betty meets Henry, a Scandinavian employed by the neighbours to sail their yacht. Betty and Henry have what Betty expects to be a summer fling.

At the end of the summer, when the grandparents return to New Jersey, there are reports of “infantile paralysis” in the city. So confident is the family of Betty’s care and devotion to Charlie, she is told to remain behind in Maine, alone, with Charlie for several months.

Back in New Jersey, the Lindberghs move into their new home. On the night of March 1, 1932, both Anne and Betty put 20-month-old Charlie to bed. A shutter is warped, and they are unable to secure it.

Later that night, when going to wake Charlie for his 10pm toilet visit, Betty finds the window open and Charlie missing from his cot.

A ransom demand comes, and the family pays $55 000. But Charlie is not released. That’s because he is dead – two months after the kidnapping his body is found in the woods near his home. Betty is the one asked to identify the body.

Betty and Henry are early suspects, although the family still staunchly support her. But while police interest moves on, Betty receives vicious letters and even death threats. Eventually she decides to go home to Scotland. Henry is deported.

A German immigrant, Richard Hauptmann, is eventually arrested after paying for groceries with one of the marked ransom notes, and Betty returns from Scotland for the trial.

Reams have been filled about the Lindbergh kidnapping, but this is the first time the nanny has a starring role. Author Mariah Fredericks says when she started exploring the identity of the nanny, she was amazed no one had written her story.

“… Gow was intimately involved with the event at almost every point. She was the last person see Charlie alive; she discovered he was missing; and she was in the Lindbergh house throughout the investigation… She was defamed in the press and triumphant at the trial. Her testimony, letters and interviews show her to be an intelligent, opinionated woman with a sense of generosity and humor. In short she was the ideal heroine.”

I found this a gripping and moving story.

The Light We Left Behind is set about 10 years later, this time in London. In 1996 certain documents kept at the British Public Records Office marked “top secret” were declassified.

It emerged that Trent Park, a stately home at Cockfosters on the outskirts of London, had been a POW camp for senior captured German officers. The men were able to wander the grounds, stayed in comfortable rooms, and were even taken occasional drives into central London.

On several occasions they were wined and dined at Simpson’s in the Strand , although surely not in full Wehrmacht uniform as author Tessa Harris has the important German officer Brigadier Hammler do.

The catch was that British intelligence, unbeknown to the officers, had secreted microphones everywhere at the mansion and even in the bushes outside. The transcripts – later stored in the Public Records Office – were made by “listeners”. And the information revealed told the British a great deal about the German war effort, including the development and deployment of the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

But that’s the non-fiction background. This novel focuses on Maddie, a young psychologist based in Oxford, whose supervisor is transferred to Trent Park to help monitor the prisoners. When he dies under mysterious circumstances, Maddie is sent to take his place.

Maddie is in love with Max, a German Jew she met during a gap year in Germany before the war. But with no post between the two countries, she hasn’t heard from him in years, and for all she knows he could be dead.

He is not, however. After a brief spell in the French Resistance, he gets to England and, thanks to his German, is sent to Trent Park to be a “listener”.

Meanwhile, also at Trent Park is a young aristocrat, Flight Lieutenant Edward Windlesham, whom Maddie knows well from her Oxford days. He too speaks German, and his job at the mansion is to pass himself off as “Lord Frobisher”, a man with German sympathies who engages with the prisoners in the hope of picking up information.

When the terrifying Brigadier Hammler indicates he misses contact with women, Maddie becomes “Lady Frobisher”, and accompanies Eddie on outings with Hammler.

Author Harris deftly conjures up life in wartime London, the poor food, the gaping terraces, the blackout, as well as the visits to nightclubs in central London by young officers and their partners who party as though there’s no tomorrow – which for many was the case.

I found the whole novel fascinating, and I warmed to the lives of the central characters. Definitely worth reading.


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