Friday, January 04, 2019

What it was like to be in England "The Summer Before the War"

The war was World War I or The Great War, as it was known before there was a second installment to worldwide slaughter. In the village of Rye in Sussex in England, the Edwardian Era was in full bloom. Men were men, women were women, and sheep grazed peacefully in verdant pastures. A young Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lands in the village. She still mourns the death of her father, a semi-famous poet. In Rye, she confronts the sexism of the time with great aplomb which caught this reader's attention right away. Her story is woven into those of Agatha Kent, a spunky middle-aged matron who lobbied to bring Beatrice to the local school. She also shelters her two nephews, Daniel, a foppish budding poet and Hugh, a medical student. The scene is set for this comedy of manners which eventually runs headlong into The Guns of August.

"The Summer Before the War" is Helen Simonson's second book and her first historical novel. She's done her homework, as far as I can tell. I am researching the same era in the U.S. for my novel "Zeppelins Over Denver," although a more accurate title might be "The Summer after the War." Only five years separate 1914 from 1919, but those years changed forever the very different worlds of Rye and Denver. The scope of those changes in Rye were perhaps more remarkable, given that the place had hundreds of years of history with pubs in buildings built in the 15th century. The settlement and later the city of Denver was but 60 years old in 1919, Colorado just 42 years into statehood and still possessed many of the traits of the frontier. Native Americans lived there for centuries but they were expendable during The Great Western Expansion, especially when gold was discovered in Cherry Creek. And we all remember the Sand Creek Massacre.

What happens when you deposit a crop of restless people into a restless place going through its own historic changes? A novel, I hope, a good one and publishable. Some 20 million people died in World War I and millions more in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. More than a million U.S. soldiers went overseas and many returned changed in body and in mind. Nurses, too, women who had only imagined a quiet married life found themselves in bloody field hospitals while German shells exploded around them. Wars tumult sent many of them on the move to new places. Women would get the vote in 1920 and Prohibition began (Colorado got an early start in 1916). Racial strife spawned the "Red Summer" of 1919, when race riots flared in U.S. cities as black soldiers returning from war said they weren't going to take this shit any more. Working men went out on strike and were beat up and killed for their efforts. The Communists had turned Russia red. That "subversive" influence was felt in the U.S., and helped spawn the investigative unit that would eventually become J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. People traveled in automobiles and airplanes, even zeppelins. Jazz was the new sound and the Charleston the wild new dance.

What a time. I share Simonson's passion for the era. It involves digging into archives and digital records available through Google. War videos can be viewed on YouTube, and you can also listen to some great tunes such as "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" and "How You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm after They've seen Paree." The audio is tinny and scratchy which only adds to my listening pleasure. As I conducted research, it occurred to me that this entire generation is gone. A baby born in 1900, such as my Irish grandfather, would turn 119 this year. If you were born when the war ended, you would turn 101. There are some centenarians out there, but they are rare. Their collective memories lie within us, their descendants, and in the records they left behind. Their stories live on. However, it is through fiction that they really come to life.

Thus it is with Simonson's novel. Her leisurely writing style is reminiscent of the writers of the era, some of whom lived and worked in Sussex, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But a formal tone and leisurely pace does not a boring book make. Simsonson''s characterizations are sharp and her conflicts very real. Humor, too, a real penchant for satire with writers as her favorite target. She has a lively time portraying the Henry James-like Tillingham, the poet Daniel who, a few decades on, would be wearing a black beret and mumbling his poems in a smoky coffee house, and Beatrice's almost-but-not-quite-famous father.

SPOILER ALERT! The townspeople rise to the occasion when was breaks out. They welcome refugees from Belgium. However, when one of the young women, Celeste, turns up pregnant and its discovered she was raped by German soldiers, angry residents lobby to turn her out. When her father arranges for Celeste to go to a convent, Daniel, the foppish poet, agrees to marry her. While Simonson sets her book in a bucolic setting in the midst of a beautiful summer and fall, she doesn't want us to forget that humans are fallible, even horrid, creatures..

"The Summer Before the War" is published by Random House. The trade paperback sells for $17. Listen to the 2016 Diane Rehm NPR interview with Simonson at

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