Cathy Austin February’22_2

Book Bites ~ Stories to Warm our Covid Weary Souls

The Love Child, by Rachel Hore, is an exceptional read. It is a beautifully written story about family, belonging, acceptance, and perseverance. Set in 1917 spanning the years to 1940, we follow the life of Alice, who is pregnant at 19 by her soldier lover Jack. She is forced by her stepmother Gwen to give her baby Stella up, renamed Irene by adoptive parents Edith and Philip. Edith wanted a different baby and never took to Irene, and that shadows everything Irene is and does. Years pass and we get to know Alice, her successful and hard won life as a female doctor in 1920’s Britain, a career not without turmoil and struggle. Irene makes dear friends with those much like her, those that do not fit in, like Tom, who lives with his artist mother while his musical father lives in London. They are outcasts and Irene feels a kinship with them. Leaving the seaside town in Suffolk, Irene heads to London and embarks on finding her birth mother to fill the gaping hole in her life. She pines for motherly arms around her, not Edith’s, who loves her natural son to no end. War looms as the story draws near to the late 1930’s. The truth for Alice and Irene also draws near and Hore knits together a wonderful and moving tale of these two women finding their place in a man’s world and in a society where adopted babies have a rough time of it, fitting in.

Hore imbues her characters with a deep abiding passion for life, truth, belonging, acceptance, and family–family that doesn’t always mean blood ties. For in the end of The Love Child, it is love that ties Alice and Irene together as they find each other, Jack’s family, and much more.

Published in 2021, Letters Across the Sea is by Canadian author Genevieve Graham. I always look forward to her historical novels and this one is outstanding.  A little known history lesson about the Battle of Hong Kong along with the riot at Christie Pits will give you pause, make you weep when you read about the race riot and high tensions in 1933 Toronto. The author includes a lengthy note at the back of the book, but don’t read it until the very end. I knew a little about the Pits riot from my grandparents who lived in the area, but never the details that Graham fictionalizes here. Molly Ryan hails from a very Catholic family, and her best friend is Hannah Dreyfus whose family who lives across the street. Events in the summer leading up to the Pits event have everyone on edge as cultures collide. Jews are persecuted on our very streets. The Ryans and Dreyfus families fall out as Hitler’s wicked ideas cross the sea. Molly and Hannah’s brother Max have a budding romance, but know they can’t because–you know why, they know why–but, still. Max goes off to become a doctor and as war looms Molly gets a reporter job with the Toronto Star: telling true stories is her forte. The brothers go off to war, as does Max, and Hong Kong is a disaster from the outset. Molly excels at her work and shares all stories of war as it really is. The characters are realistic and jump off the page, the settings are huge and horrific overseas, and Graham has penned a wonderfully moving story involving neighbours, colleagues, and friends; all who must manage and survive all that wartime brings. Do Max and Molly meet up? Do they survive? Do read this novel and find out.  

The love story Our Darkest Night is by another Canadian historical fiction writer, Jennifer Robson. Another different perspective—farm country a few miles north of Venice in Italy during the autumn of 1943 and suddenly the new home for Nina Mazin, a young Jewish girl who must flee Venice as all Jews will be rounded up and deported to camps. Friends of friends get her away to hide in the countryside with a man and his family, a stranger by the name of Nico Gerardi. This is the last historical fiction novel of the four I had lined up on my shelf for fall reading. Robson is a remarkable storyteller and the fact she has family history that got her writing in the direction this book takes makes Our Darkest Night all the more painful and moving to read. However, there is joy amidst the sorrow that is the Holocaust for survivor Nina and for her new husband Nico. His family champions the hiding of those that need rescuing out on their farmland north of Venice, way out in the country, as Nazism and Fascism take root in Italy under Mussolini’s yield to Hitler’s minions. There is joy in the wonderful days Nina comes to enjoy in the fields, the farmhouse chores, birdsong, the children in the family (Nico’s siblings), and a begrudging budding friendship with his sister Rosa. War is nowhere near them but there are some shortages and brownshirts do show up in the small close-knit village along with a nemesis of Nico’s, Zwerger, now a top minion in Hitler’s army. There is pain, much pain, sorrow, and burdens to carry. Nina gets found out and is sent to a camp, her days there are endless and terrible but with strength she never could imagine having, survives, and is finally, as the war is declared over, released. Mezzo Ciel never looked so welcoming to her: there was her family, Nico, their daughter, their free life, such joy amidst sorrow. This is a hard book to put down. The notes at the end are equally moving and make for a true love story.

Family Day, February 21, is an ideal time to curl up en famille with a video (old style, but so cozy) and a great flick for this month of love is Love Actually. It isn’t just a Christmas favourite, but a year-round one because, like, love, actually is all around us, all the time! Despicable Me or Sherlock Gnomes always get thumbs up from me when you need to lose yourself and laugh out loud. 

Happy reading and watching!