Great and moving story about an island at war

Review: Vivien Horler

The Wartime Book Club, by Kate Thompson (Hodder & Stoughton)

The dynamics of World War II in the Channel Islands were extraordinary. The only part of Britain to be invaded by the Germans, its residents experienced a very different war from that of their countrymen just a few miles across the Channel.

On June 30, 1940, just over a week after 6 500 evacuees left the islands for the British mainland – many of them children, many of them men going to fight with the Allies – the tramp of jackboots was heard in the streets of St Helier, Jersey, for the first time.

At first things were not too terrible, as the Germans were able to import food from France. But after the D-Day landings in June 1944, things became very bad indeed as the islanders, and the German military, were effectively trapped on the islands, unable to leave or source food from anywhere else.

Some islanders wondered why Churchill didn’t send food to them somehow, but he knew anything he sent would be seized by the German forces, not given to the islanders. Food became frighteningly scarce, to the extent pets were often stolen and eaten.

Food shortages, curfews, the fear of sudden arrest led to tensions between many previously close-knit islanders. There were occasions when people informed on each other to the Germans. There were also tales of remarkable courage.

This is the background to a great story of the struggles of the people of Jersey, many of them based on real characters.

At the centre of the novel are two young women, childhood friends, Grace La Mottee, a librarian, and Bea Rose, a postwoman. Both find ways to frustrate the Germans whenever possible.

Grace is ordered to destroy books the Germans don’t like – each chapter opens with the names of books banned by the Nazis, including John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (banned apparently because it featured Jewish characters) – and hides them in a secret cupboard instead.

Bea, working in the post office sorting room, starts to open post sent by islanders to military HQ, often letters denouncing neighbours. One letter in the book, typical of those really sent, reads: “Sir, I have good reason to know that Mrs Eileen Dark of Rose Cottage, Havre des Pas, hears the English news very often in the morning at 8am.”

The letter is helpfully signed by “Mrs Richards”, which Bea realises will earn her 100 Reichsmarks.

So Bea makes it her business to warn Mrs Dark, and then postdates the letter and sends it on, assuming that by the time the Nazis raid Mrs Dark’s home, the forbidden radio will be long gone. She steals other letters, as a record of what is going on.

Bea is in a serious pickle. Her beloved Jimmy is determined to escape the island, along with a couple of friends, to get to England and join up. But after a joyful loving encounter on the clifftop a few hours earlier, during which Jimmy proposes, Nazis intercept the group of pals on the beach, and Jimmy is killed.

And now Bea is pregnant, not something the conservative islanders will accept.

As for Grace, she is helping Red, an American airman shot down off the coast, who is hiding from the Germans in sheds and barns.

Because people are so distressed by the war, Grace starts a book club in the library where she reads aloud from works like Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca. It is a respite from the horror, and the islanders flock to the library.

But they have to be careful because the Wolf, the frighteningly perceptive and cruel head of the secret police, has a censor at every meeting, and monitors what they say. He believes Grace and Bea are up to something, and is watching them closely.

They have to be careful, because transgressions can have islanders deported to concentration camps in Europe, or even shot.

Author Kate Thompson has done a vast amount of research to write a convincing wartime history of Jersey, seen through the eyes of a cross-section of islanders.

And, possibly because she had more detailed information than she could incorporate into her novel, she has included a series of fascinating addenda about the true story of the stolen letters, the real story of the “plucky posties”, facts about the despised “Jerrybags” who consorted with the German troops, some island recipes, and a section on “inspirational islanders” who did extraordinary things like hiding Jewish neighbours for the duration of the war.

The bestselling Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society, by Annie Barrows, about a book club on the neighbouring island, was a hit and was made into a film. Thompson herself describes it as charming, and it is. The Wartime Book Club is a lot darker; interesting, often terrifying, and frequently tragic.

But it is full of love, hope, extraordinary courage and friendship.

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