A WW1 Romance | White Feathers by Susan Lanigan

My grandmother didn’t have a lot of time for the women who handed out  white feathers during the first world war. To her, it was a symbol not of cowardice but of bullying. She believed the distributors failed to take account the personal circumstances.  Age, disability, mental fragility counted for nothing. Consequently, vulnerable men could be victimised.

My grandmother didn’t talk much about the war years. But what she told me about white feathers stayed with me through the years. So, when I spotted the title of Susan Lanigan’s novel, White Feathers, my interest was piqued.

White Feathers is the story of a young. independently-minded girl. Eva Downey born in the early 1900s. Her mother has died and her father is married to their former domestic servant. Consequently, Eva has found herself with a hostile stepmother.  Escape becomes possible when an unexpected bequest from a suffragette provides for Eva to attend The Links, a boarding school for young women.

At school, Eva is impoverished and intellectual both of which attributes set her apart from most of her classmates however she forms a strong, lasting friendship with the rich and feisty Sybil — the liveliest and most likeable character in this novel.

Eva’s intellect attracts the attention of a teacher, Christopher Shandlin and she finds herself slowly falling in love. But back home, her jealous stepmother and stepsister Grace plot against her and when her natural sister Imelda becomes dangerously ill, Eva is forced to make a difficult choice between saving Imelda and betraying Christopher.

Christopher and Eva are not typical romantic characters. Their story contains uncomfortable and difficult elements.

Historical research

Lanigan’s historical research is good. While character and pacing could be stronger in White Feathers the choices Eva faces could make for some interesting book club discussion.

White Feathers by Susan Lanigan is published by Brandon Press.
[Disclosure: A free copy was provided for the purpose of this review].

See also: The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

The Boston Girl — a novel for all generations

The Boston Girl is the story of a Jewish girl, born in 1900 to immigrant parents. It takes the form of an 85-year old grandmother — Addie Baum — talking to her 22-year old granddaughter, Ava. Short chapters make The Boston Girl an easy read. It covers a period of tremendous political and social upheaval in the USA and around the world.

Although this is a comforting story, it touches on significant themes.

Addie’s life span covers two world wars. During her life, she witnessed changing attitudes to religion and race and the emergence of women’s rights. She sees these events from the perspective of an ordinary woman living an ordinary life.  Addie worked to earn her living. She adapted to the changes around her — always positive, always learning — working to maintain family relationships, sustain friendships and ultimately to build an independent life.

Family and friendship

At its heart, The Boston Girl is a novel of family and friendship — rich in emotion and empathy and it is perhaps Addie’s intensely personal experiences that will hold the greatest resonance for most readers — whether that’s the youthful experience of falling for the flattery of a handsome but predatory young man, class and cultural sensitivities, friendship, the responsibilities and support of family — particularly siblings, the joy of finding love and happiness.

While not without troubles — and she has some serious troubles to contend with — Addie is a positive and optimistic character — likeable, wise, non-judgmental like the best of grandmothers. In telling the past, she is not sentimental nor does she seek to return to former days but instead she shares what she has learned always adapting, always looking to the future.

I enjoyed The Boston Girl enormously — for its subject matter, for its geographical setting, for the era 1900-1985 that it spans — most of all for the empathy and insights of its heroine, Addie Baum. A book to share with women of all ages.

[The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant is published by Scribner — a division of Simon & Schuster. Disclosure: An Advance Review Copy was made available by the publisher via Edelweiss for the purpose of this review]

See also The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

Ben Fergusson debut novel paints a frightening picture of post-war Berlin

Ben Fergusson wrote The Spring of Kasper Meier during a four-year period living and working in Berlin.

It’s an astonishing debut novel — sad, frightening even, shocking.

Post-war Berlin, as depicted by Ben Fergusson is a city in ruins. Those who survived the war struggle to meet basic needs. Like many others, Kasper is involved in black market trading and danger is never far from his door.

When a young woman, Eva, asks him to help her find a British pilot, he is reluctant to get involved but Eva has information about Kasper and he cannot risk that she might use it.

Short, well-written chapters

Kasper’s story emerges over a series of relatively short, well-written chapters. He reveals both the connections and the disjointedness in a society broken by war. Danger and fear are tangible on virtually every page — even the children are threatening figures —  and some of the episodes — like the chapter entitled Igor Maslov — are truly chilling.

Kasper is the strongest character in the novel by some distance. But character is secondary to city because essentially The Spring of Kasper Meier is a story about a particular place at a particular moment in time.

The Spring of Kasper Meier (ISBN 9781408705049) by Ben Fergusson is published by Little Brown Group in the UK. An advance copy was made available via Netgalley for the purpose of this review.