Saturday, April 10, 2021

Revisiting Bletchley Park through Kate Quinn's The Rose Code

In July 2019, my husband and I took a week's trip to London, back when vacations were a thing. On a friend's suggestion, we planned a visit to Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, taking the London Northwestern Railway from Euston Station. After arriving at the Bletchley stop, we walked down a long flight of stairs, exited the station, crossed the street, and the entrance to Bletchley Park was a short walk away.

From watching The Bletchley Circle, I knew what had taken place during WWII at Bletchley, the center of codebreaking activities, and the heroic acts of the thousands of very smart people employed there during the war, most of them women. Their work was key to the Allied victory and reportedly shortened the length of the war by two years.

Bletchley Park mansion from a distance, and small lake, which
appears in the story early on. Photo taken by me (7-15-19)

So of course when I first heard about Kate Quinn's The Rose Code, I knew I'd have to read it. When I had a break between review assignments this past week, I dived right in.

The Rose Code is a smart, character-driven historical thriller about three women who become unlikely friends and allies while working at Bletchley during the war, and the terrible betrayals that destroyed their strong bond. 


Desk in Bletchley Park hut
Work tables inside one of the huts

Mab Churt is a tall, self-sufficient East Ender worried about her mother and younger sister in London. Canadian-born Osla Kendall, a character based on Osla Benning, an early girlfriend of Prince Philip, runs in elite social circles and has led a relatively sheltered life. She has a talent for languages and wants the world to know she's more than a "silly deb." Lastly, shy Beth Finch, a whiz with puzzles, escapes her overbearing mother's insults and abuse when she discovers, to her astonishment, that she fits in with the other codebreakers at Bletchley. Their work is so secret that each worker only knows their own task.

Alternating chapters set in 1947, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, follow the trio as they're forced to reunite, with one of them held against her will in a sanitarium, in order to unmask a spy within their earlier ranks.

Bombes at Bletchley Park
Exhibit on operating the Bombes

The story takes you right inside the huts at Bletchley where all the codebreaking takes place and also inside the characters' heads as they try to crack the codes used by the Germans. You feel their exhaustion as they push themselves to their physical and mental limits, and rejoice when they succeed in finding the right pattern. Mab becomes one of the women operating the decryption machine known as the Bombe (image above).  When I visited in summer, the huts were cool, but all of the rooms are fairly small, with narrow corridors connecting them. One could easily imagine how hot and cramped they were, with the women constantly in motion as they put the heavy drums in their slots and adjusted the wires to keep the Bombe running.

The setup at Bletchley, in July 2019, made it appear as if the huts' occupants had just stepped away from their desks for lunch.

The story makes for compulsive reading as it interweaves the women's friendships with several poignant love stories and the intense race-against-time atmosphere of the earlier and later timelines.

Inside the Bletchley Park mansion
The office inside the Bletchley Park mansion

It does feel rather startling to have just finished this novel as Prince Philip's death was announced, as he's a major character.  In The Rose Code he's the dashing and tanned Prince Philip of Greece, Royal Navy officer and distant relative of the British royals. He and his girlfriend, Osla, set up by a mutual friend, share the feeling of having no real home. His depiction feels realistic and respectful.

I'd love to see the novel as a film, and with the recent announcement of a TV adaptation, hopefully that will happen in the near future.  Both a visit to Bletchley and the novel itself are definitely recommended.  (Thanks to the publisher, William Morrow, for approving an e-copy via Edelweiss.)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart, a novel of family and courage in Nazi-occupied France

To what lengths would you go to ensure your child’s survival? What would you sacrifice in yourself to preserve their well-being? With her accomplished first novel, Druart penetrates to the heart of these emotional questions, exploring them in multiple ways through the interlinked stories of two couples. 

In 1953 Santa Cruz, California, Jean-Luc and Charlotte Beauchamps are the proud parents of a son, Sam, who loves burgers and chocolate-chip cookies as much as any American kid. They’ve strived to adapt to their new country, speaking only English, and never revisiting the trauma they fled in Paris nine years earlier. The tone is ominous as a car pulls up to their house. Inspectors take Jean-Luc in for questioning, and his carefully built life begins unraveling.

Back in March 1944, Jean-Luc maintains tracks for the French national railway, now under German control. He’s nervous after being transferred to the Drancy station, as rumors float about forced deportations of Jews. He never sees any trains, but evidence left on the platform – a stuffed toy, a broken shoe, and something much worse – implies passengers are being transported to a dreadful end. Jean-Luc feels he must act but doesn’t know how. Then one day a train does stop, and a frantic young mother, Sarah Laffitte, thrusts her weeks-old son into his arms.

Druart keeps suspense thrumming throughout, even with readers’ prior knowledge about some characters’ fates. The crushing weight of the Nazi occupation and its impact on Sarah and husband David, as well as Jean-Luc and Charlotte, a nurse he meets at a German hospital, come through clearly. Sam’s physical and emotional reactions are particularly convincing. It catches at the heart that there are no villains among the five main characters, but their choices cause pain, nonetheless. The ending is as beautiful as one could wish.

While Paris Slept was published by Grand Central in February; I'd reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  It's also published in the UK by Headline Review, and in Australia by Hachette.

Friday, April 02, 2021

A historical fiction microtrend: World War II, librarians, and books

Historical fiction's enduring focus on World War II has been good for my profession. No longer stereotyped as prim and mousy spinsters, librarians in today's novels are multifaceted heroes who work tirelessly to preserve the written word and undertake other daring exploits. Within the collage of nine novels below, I've also included WWII-set fiction about booksellers, book clubs, the publishing industry, and literature's power to endure.

 

When We Meet Again by Caroline Beecham (Putnam, Jul. 2021), her first novel to be published in the US, focuses on a woman employed in London's publishing industry in 1943 and her plight following an unintended pregnancy. Antonio Iturbe's The Librarian of Auschwitz (2017), marketed towards YAs but suitable for adults as well. reveals the story of Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus who, as a teenager, courageously guarded eight books within the Auschwitz death camp. Nancy Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, stars in Michelle Gable's The Bookseller's Secret (Graydon House, Aug.), a multi-period novel which depicts her time as a bookshop manager and literary salon hostess in 1940s London.



So many of these novels are set in London and Paris!  Janet Skeslien Charles' The Paris Library (Atria, Feb. 2021) reveals the heroic actions of the staff at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Third in her Sunrise at Normandy series, The Land Beneath Us by Sarah Sundin (Revell, 2020) tells the romantic story of a library worker at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, who exchanges letters with her new husband after he's sent to fight overseas. And Mario Escobar's The Librarian of Saint-Malo (Thomas Nelson, June 2021) takes place in Nazi-occupied Brittany and a woman who dares to save books that the Nazis are purging from St.-Malo's libraries.




Kristin Harmel's multi-period The Book of Lost Names (Gallery, Jul. 2020), like the previous book, focuses on Nazi soldiers' looting of European libraries; in contemporary times, a librarian comes across a book that holds codes only she can decipher.  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008), now a modern classic with a film version, revolves around a book club on Guernsey during wartime and celebrates how books can unite people. Lastly, Madeline Martin's The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square, Apr. 2021), set during the Blitz, centers on a young bookshop employee and how storytelling can keep hope alive.