Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Finishing book five







I have now completed the first draft of the fifth book in the cycle. This brings us closer to the German girls who wrote the letters that sparked off the whole project.  The girls are now very heavily fictionalised. 

I have used just four characters:

  • The feisty Anika who becomes an actor
  • Erika, one of the twins who has to run her father’s factory after he dies suddenly.  Her twin also features in the novel but is a minor character.
  • Gerda, who becomes a farmer
  • Hanna Braun, the girls’ former teacher.

The novel spans nine years and the girls grow up a lot in that time. Of course they are touched by the war. Each girl finds a strategy for coping. They enjoy some camaraderie each in their own area. The round robin letter is also a point of connection. They develop a strong sense of duty. They have to learn some painful truths about what has happened to some people they know: Renate, Elfriede Kaiser, Sister Kuna and Father Maxfeld. Hanna Braun carries the burden of knowing and of realising all of that and of being aware of what the Nazi regime is doing to education. .

The novel is running at 101,000 words at the moment. Will it get shorter as I edit? 

The girls are thirteen at the beginning and twenty-two by the end.  They live in a completely different world from their twenty-first century counterparts. Is this novel suitable for young adults?  Young adults could certainly understand it and digest it. They might not read it for pleasure. It could certainly also be suitable for adults. 

One review for The House on Schellberg Street mentioned that readers more often hope for escapism and entertainment in their reading. This is a fair comment. The type of text I’m producing here then will always remain on the back foot. However, I hope the books in the cycle will do two things: show there is some hope as they all end on an optimistic note and offer some explanation as to how it all might have happened. 

Ah well, on to the redrafting.           

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden





This was actually written 1973, so in fact when the war was becoming history. It is a story about relationships, superstition and guilt as much as it is about the war. 

Nevertheless it gives us several useful insights about what it was like for children who were evacuated. 

Carrie and younger brother Nick are subjected to a harsh regime when they stay with Mr Evans and his younger sister whom they call Auntie Lou. It isn’t all harsh though; the children are well fed and Auntie Loo is kind to them. 

The children are taught in the village hall. A friend of theirs, Albert Sandwich is evacuated with Hepzibah, who may be a witch, and Mr Johnny the disabled relation of her employee, Mr Evans’ other sister Dilys. Albert misses the educational stimulus of having a large municipal library nearby.
It is awkward when Carrie’s mother comes to visit. They don’t know what to say to her. 

Auntie Lou elopes with an American soldier. There is an American presence on the edge of this story.
It is short book, with short chapters so easy for a young person to read. There are some complex issues in it so it will also be of interest to adults.        

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Romanticising the Nazi era?




I attended an academic research seminar this week in which a colleague talked to us about his novel set in Russia. He asked us about our perceptions of Russia and commented that there were many romantic views of it.  Another colleague remarked that it was odd how the Cold War had been romanticised but not the Nazi period. 

Was that period too awful that it shouldn’t / couldn’t be romanticised? 

Well, I certainly have some romance in the current book that I’m writing but it’s that ordinary romance that you might find in any 1940s novel, where young men return from fighting and marry their girlfriends.  They just happen to be German young men.  This is set against a background of the girls finding out some difficult to digest truths about some of the things that had been going on in the background.  And also finding out that their heightened sense of duty and the close bond amongst them that was stronger than family ties may not have been so healthy. 

Certainly my young girls in Girl in a Smart Uniform have romantic notions of what it would be like to become a perfect German woman. The main two women are lesbians but female readers may find the handsome Nazi officer they work with very attractive, though he then does something so terrible that they’ll end up not liking him at all. 

Isn’t there something quite attractive about those smart leather great coats that the SS wore? And weren’t the women who worked with them rather glamorous, something to be aimed for? Of course it was all so nasty many people conclude it’s best forgotten. 

I grew up in fear of the swastika. This was something evil though I didn’t really know why. The name Utrecht (not really sure why for that one but even so ….) and Treblinka had an exotic sound about them. Yes, they were horrific – but certainly also promising something unknown, something exotic. I experienced a kind of sanitised dread.

Terry Nation brought us something similar with the Daleks. Compare their intonation with some of the things you hear form the Nuremberg rallies and just look at what they do with their “arms” when they shout “Exterminate!” Nation used a pattern from the Nazis to bring us ultimate evil.   

I didn’t learn about the Holocaust until I was eighteen. It may seem amazing but for the generation born at the end of and soon after the war what happened was really supressed. More so in Germany than in the UK. Now, though, the grandchildren of victims, perpetuators and bystanders are middle-aged and mature enough to examine this and to pose the question ”What went wrong?”

I’m trying to answer that question in my cycle of novels.  I’m getting it the heads of young women who lived through that time and I’m trying to trace their emotional growth. I’m finding certainly that they were offered hope – often in the form of smart uniforms and a sense of purpose.  How terrible then when they realise that they’d got it wrong. That is the very premise of my current work in progress.

And I have one feisty young woman who becomes an actor and putting herself in great danger, works in the subversive, underground theatre that satirizes the Führer and his cronies. How romantic! 

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay                   

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Past Remembering by Catrin Collier




This is a romantic novel with a huge cast. But it is set in the 1940s just before the Americans join in the war; in the last few pages we hear about the attack Pearl Harbour.  The plot may be a little exaggerated for the serious scholar but it nevertheless gives us some insights into many aspects of civilian life in Britain and the civilian perception of war activities. So we have material about:
Munitions factories
Attitude to gay men
Conscientious objectors
Bevan boys
Women becoming independent
Food rationing
ENSA
Distance relationships
Injuries
Evacuees
The work house (yes, I was surprised it still existed!)
Awkwardness when men returned on leave
Espionage
The black out
Air raids      
Italy
TB
War-time pregnancy
Dunkirk
Fear that Hitler will invade – I think we often forget about this as we know that he didn’t.
Effect of Russian winter

Monday, 6 April 2020

Going back to basics and picking up some extra threads




If you’ve read The House on Schellberg Street you may remember a scene where the teacher Hanna Braun invites her girls for coffee and cake.  The war has ended and life is slowly getting back to normal but there are some things that she feels she must tell the girls about. What about Renate? And Sister Kuna, about Father Maxfeld and about Elfriede Kaiser? 

Elfriede Kaiser I have made up. Sister Kuna, Father Maxfeld, and of course Renate really existed.  
Elfreide, like Renate, does not know she is Jewish until just before she has to travel. However, unlike Renate she doesn’t travel to the relative safety of England. Her parents hesitate about sending her too on the Kindertransport. Then it is too late. They flee to Holland instead but in the end that does not help. 

I’ve had to go back to Renate’s original letter to her classmates in 1980.  And yes there is enough there for me to build up the stories about Sister Kuna and Father Maxfeld. 

I need to include these stories in my novel about the round robin letter. They offer a sharp contrast to the innocent bubble that the girls live in. I hope the novel will show that they can’t help being naïve.
So, I’ve had to delve back into my original documents and of course, as well as finding what I needed in order to be able to continue my story I’ve been side-tracked into reading much more. In particular was the whole Renate’s letter to her friends – four sides of closely typed A4, her original attempt of telling her own story – in fact, I’ve based part of the opening scene of my first book on this- ,  and her friend Hanno Schäfer’s reply to her letter. 

It’s good to go back to the primary resources occasionally and remind yourself of where all the ideas came from in the first place.