Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech

Set in Aberlady, East Lothian Scotland Wait For Me is a tender story about forbidden love during the closing days of World War II.

Almost eighteen-year-old Lorna Anderson lives on Craigielaw farm with her father. Her mother died when Lorna was very young. Since then, Mrs. McMurdough (Mrs. Mack) comes daily to cook, clean and care for the Anderson family.  With her brothers, John Jo and Sandy away at war, Lorna and her father are helped on the farm by Nellie who came two years ago from the Women's Land Arm.

In early February of 1945, a truck bearing German POWs from the Gosford Prisoners of War camp pulls into the farm. One of the prisoners, a tall skinny young man is dropped off to work on the Anderson farm. He is introduced to Lorna who is shocked to see that the left side of his face has been badly burned and scarred. "...from his left temple to his chin across his cheek and down the left side of his throat, the pale skin had been burned away, leaving raw red scarring, tight and shiny. The flesh was puckered into the knotted remnants of an earlobe, and his left eye was stretched out of shape, round elongating to oval."

Lorna races to school to write her exam and can't wait to tell her best friend Iris Robertson. After the exam Lorna's teacher, Mrs. Murray suggests to Lorna that she should consider university but with the war continuing, Lorna feels she cannot leave her father. After school Lorna tries to convince Iris to reconsider her blossoming romance with William Urquhart, who is the son of the parish minister and Aberlady School's head boy but Iris insists that William is clever and "very moral". Iris believes that Lorna's dislike for her beau is a mask for jealousy. . Lorna tells Iris about the badly disfigured young German soldier who is working on their farm. Iris seems to feel the German soldier deserved his injuries which greatly upsets Lorna.

The next day the German POW arrives back at the farm. After slowly and loudly introducing herself, Lorna is surprised to discover that he speaks English. He tells her his name is Paul Vogel and wishes Lorna a good day. Paul explains to Lorna that his aunt was an English lady who taught him English during his holidays on his uncle's farm. When Lorna tells Paul that people are not happy about Germans working on local farms and that there are Nazis at the camp he brusquely reminds her that not all Germans are Nazis. Later on Mrs. Mack reminds Lorna that Paul like all young men, was doing what his country asked of him.

As the days pass Lorna begins to experience increasingly conflicting feelings about Paul. Although she's upset at his presence on the farm, she also watches out for him. With the start of lambing season, Lorna helps her father as Nellie is unable to cope with the birthing. Paul stays in the lambing shed to feed those lambs abandoned by their mothers caring tenderly for them. But after her remark about the Nazis, Paul is curt and distant with Lorna, making her feel upset. Needing more help on the farm. Lorna's father is granted permission to have Paul stay overnight on the farm. They arrange a place for Paul to sleep in the hayloft in the barn and Lorna takes his evening meal to him in the barn.

One evening Paul explains to Lorna about his family. She reminds him of his younger sister Lilli who lives in Desden with his mother. Paul describes the beauty of Desden to Lorna, with its churches, art galleries and many parks. He also tells her how his father, a clockmaker, was forced into the Wehrmacht, the German army in late 1939 and was dead by April. When he turned sixteen, Paul began to apprentice as a clockmaker, but when he turned eighteen, he too was forced into the Wehrmacht.

As Lorna comes to know Paul, she is faced with the reality that he is a nice man and one whom she could be friends with or even more. But is that even possible in a time of war? And what does that mean for herself and her family? For Lorna, falling in love with an enemy soldier may mean losing all that she holds dear.

Discussion

Wait For Me is a beautifully crafted story about love in the time of war. In her debut novel, Leech deftly weaves her story about a young woman's prejudices and assumptions that are gradually conquered when she encounters the humanity of a German prisoner of war. As her view transforms from mistrust to friendship and finally to love, she struggles with her own inner conflicts and the prejudices of those around her.

The story opens in February of 1945, in what would be the closing months of World War II. Like most British, Lorna views all Germans as the enemy; cruel and dangerous.  The nearby base has been made into a prisoner of war camp housing German soldiers who are to work on local farms. When she first sees Paul Vogel, she believes he's sneering at her. "Then his gaze fell to her school uniform and woolen stockings, her milk-and-muck-spattered shoes. The right, undamaged side of his face rose in a sneer. Or was it a smile? No, definitely a sneer."

Although she doesn't trust Paul, when Iris suggests that he may have deserved his terrible wound, Lorna is horrified. "Iris! Just because someone's a German doesn't mean he deserves to be hurt so badly."  Iris suggests that Lorna should be pleased that he's been badly hurt, but Lorna is confused about how she should feel. "Well, yes...no...maybe...I mean, yes, but when you've got a real one standing right in front of you and the damage to his face is so terrible, well, it's ...different. Somehow."

The next day, Lorna notices that Paul seems forlorn and she feels "... almost sorry for him." Looking more closely at Paul, she notices, "...the tug at the right side of his mouth was there again. That same sneer. Except, today, it did look more like he was trying to smile. Tentative, perhaps, but still, it lightened his face..." And when she actually speaks to him, she notices even more, "...the smile was back, drawing Lorna's attention away from the burns. Its curve led her from his mouth up to his eyes, which sparkled." Lorna feels guilty; "Surely noticing an enemy's sparkle was tantamount to treason. She was betraying John Jo and Sandy and Gregor..." 

Lorna is concerned about Paul understanding the sergeant's insults but when she returns Paul's wave minutes later she admonishes herself. "Stop! He shouldn't be this friendly. She couldn't be this friendly. He was a German, after all." Paul's friendly actions don't fit with Lorna's view of Germans who are the enemy. Mrs. Mack tries to explain that Paul is simply doing what his country asked of him in a time of war. Lorna decides, "the prisoner had seemed quite nice, and not particularly threatening...Yes, he was quite nice really. For a German."

One day after Paul mentions his sister,  Lorna's questions lead him to tell her how the war affected his family and life.  Lorna identifies with Paul's situation, recognizing that just as she worries about her brothers, he worries about his mother and sister in Dresden. But as Lorna opens up to Paul about her brothers, once again she experiences intense conflict. "What had she been thinking, trusting this stranger, this enemy, with her precious memories.?" Yet she continues to be drawn to Paul both physically and emotionally. Watching him one morning washing at the water pump she wonders, "Would this Greek god still be here by summer, washing at the pump in the warm sun?"

Observing Paul working on the farm creates curiosity in Lorna. "She found herself wanting to know more about him. And it was strange, the more they'd talked the evening before...the less German he became. Or not less German, exactly, but more like any of the normal boys, the Scottish boys she knew at school. Lorna didn't know what to make of that. He was not like she had expected the enemy to be at all. In fact, she was beginning to realize that he might not be so very different from her."

Lorna's inner conflict is realistically portrayed and her gradual change of heart as she comes to view Paul as a person worth loving is touching and very romantic. Her internal struggle is a complicated one. For example, as their friendship grows, Lorna finds herself becoming more concerned with Paul and how he feels. His scarred faced no longer repulses her as she is able to look beyond his wounds to the person beneath. Lorna feels shame over her initial feelings about Paul suffering from the cold when he first arrived on the farm and shame for labelling him a Nazi. Paul's help when she is caught unexpectedly in a rainstorm, leaves her feeling comfort at his presence and recognizing that Paul is a nice person whom she could be friends with. But when they talk about the war and how Paul came to be injured, Lorna remembers that Paul may have killed Allied soldiers. "Suddenly the doubts crept back in. She must not forget that this man was an enemy soldier, she must not forget he was German, that he had been trained to kill men like her brother and his friends."

 Although Lorna is loyal to Britain she can't make herself hate or treat Paul badly simply because he's German. Her close relationship with Paul helps her to recognize that he doesn't represent the Nazi regime and that like her family, he's been caught in a war not of his own making.  But her struggle is ongoing throughout the novel; she is ready to accuse Paul of stealing her father's watch and she viciously blames him for what happens to John Jo.

Ironically, Lorna's only other interaction with a man who is not a family member is a complete contrast to Paul's actions towards her. While everyone is warning her to be watchful of Paul because he might be a spy, to lock her bedroom door when he stays overnight on the farm, it turns out it is the American soldiers she needs to be wary of. Her date for a dance turns out to be an American soldier whose drunken attempt to rape her leaves Lorna distraught and afraid. His behaviour is in stark contrast to Paul who is labelled an enemy soldier. Even Nellie's experience with the American soldiers is not a positive one; she becomes pregnant by a soldier who then tells her cannot marry her because he has a wife in Tennessee. 

As Lorna's relationship with Paul becomes known within the community both she and Paul face prejudice and Lorna is ostracized by almost everyone.  Here Leech's character shows her mettle; she stands up to her brother and to the prejudice of the villagers.Her bravery is soon supported by her father and by Mrs. Murphy whose son Gregor was killed. As her family rallies around her, Paul begins to find some acceptance when the war ends.

Leech builds tension throughout the novel beginning with the crisis between Lorna and her brother John Jo who is furious that she is friends with a German soldier, to a confrontation between Lorna's family and the parish minister, culminating in the sudden departure of the Germans from Gosford leaving Lorna believing Paul has gone for good. But Leech closes her story on a hopeful note, as suggested by the novel's title.

Wait For Me really captures the atmosphere of living in rural Scotland during the close of World War II. Life on the farms continued as families worried and waited for word of sons and husbands sent off to fight. Lambing season arrives, people fall in love, life goes on. Interactions with American and Allied soldiers were not always positive. And the arrival of German prisoners of war caused much worry among the local people.  Leech offers a balanced perspective with some characters being open and accepting of Paul, while others are not. John Jo's furious reaction to Lorna's relationship with Paul is realistic (it would be expected a soldier would not be happy with his sister falling in love with an enemy soldier) while Mrs. Mack recognizes Paul as a person who needs healing and compassion. Leech also touches briefly on the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces, demonstrating that in war, terrible deeds are done by both sides.

Wait For Me is another excellent addition to the young adult World War II historical fiction genre. Fans of Dan Smith's My Friend The Enemy will enjoy Caroline Leech's debut novel. Look for more from this author in the coming year.

An article from the Telegraph exploring the bombing of Dresden on the 70th anniversary.

A February 2015 Atlantic article titled, "Remembering Dresden: 70 years after the firebombing" contains many interesting photographs (Please note some are very graphic).

Book Details:

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books   2017
361 pp.

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