Every year it seems there are innumerable new novels that take place in London during the blitz of World War II. And of course while I cannot claim to have read all of them, I always wonder how any single one can have anything new or fresh to say. Chris Cleave’s “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” which takes place between September of 1939 and June of 1942, and was influenced by the experience of Cleave’s grandparents, finds a way to feel both fresh and new.
Mary North is a privileged debutante, from a wealthy political family. The day war is declared she signs up to volunteer for duty, choosing to take what is assigned rather than using her family connections to receive favored treatment. Expecting that “they would make her a liaison, or an attache to a general’s staff,” her very first lesson in war is a disappointment when she is assigned to teach. She is even more disappointed to learn that the children she is to teach are being evacuated from London (but only after the evacuation of the zoo animals). “Mary almost wept when she learned that her first duty as a schoolmistress would be to evacuate her class to the countryside. And when she discovered that London had evacuated its zoo animals days before its children, she was furious.” She quickly learns that the evacuation does not necessarily include special needs children or black children. And so she stays behind to teach the “less favored”.
In the meantime, she meets and falls in love with Tom, who is responsible for the schools that are left open. Her best friend Hilda spends much of her time plotting how to meet and marry a man in uniform. Tom and Mary arrange for Hilda to meet Tom’s friend Alistair, who has just left France and is on his way to Malta. Mary, Tom, Alistair and Hilda are the focal points of the story.
Hilda and Mary become ambulance drivers during the bombings and see all of the terrible things that one would expect to see. Mary and Hilda grow and change throughout the almost three-year span of the story. As the war comes closer to home, Mary’s perspective shifts and changes. “I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”
Mary becomes more and more aware of the different experience of war for people of wealth and privilege. After their first day as ambulance drivers, and having experienced senseless death and devastation, Mary observes to Hilda: “Two dozen rooms in my house, I should think and six in your flat, and hardly a bomb has touch Pimlico. If we truly wanted to help, we could have hosted this whole street in your place and mine, instead of digging through their rubble.”
In addition to the inequities of wealth and privilege, Mary also experiences first hand the racism and intolerance of London. When Mary clashes with her mother over men, race and obligation, Mary’s mother comments that “The young see the world that they wish for. The old see the world as it is. You must tell me which you think the more honest.”
Throughout the book depictions of battle, horror and hunger alternate with stories of romance and friendship, all told with a touch of humor and endearment. Somehow throughout all the tragedy, death and devastation, people never lose their humanity and sense of hopefulness. If the book has one flaw, it is that in places the dialogue is simply too clever, a flaw which can be forgiven. Be sure to check out this book when it is released in May. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11195731__Severyone%20brave%20is%20forgiven__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.