November 2012, Historical Fiction (WWI France and England)
William Morrow, $16.99, 256 pages, Amazon ASIN 0062236997
I think one of the most horrifying things in the world would be to be away from home when war broke out. Suddenly, your visit to a foreign land turns into an unintended stay. You find yourself trapped in an unfamiliar area, with the very real possibility that you might be killed before you can get home. The experience would be completely terrifying. The Walnut Tree manages to capture the horror of the experience as well as the adventure of it. I couldnít put it down.
They all thought it would be over by Christmas. It is the summer of 1914 and Germany has gone on the offensive, invading Belgium. Britain and France enter into the fray and talk on the streets is that it will be a short war, quickly fought and quickly won. Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris when the war begins. She is urged to leave immediately but determines to stay until Madeleineís baby is born. She knows Madeleine will go crazy with worry with both her brother and husband fighting. Elspeth entertains some worries of her own. Having just agreed to marry Alain, Madeleine's charming, handsome brother, Elspeth watches him leave to join his unit with a heavy heart. He had been a school girl crush but does she truly love him or is the war making romantic fools of them all?
When little Henri is born, Elspeth feels a traumatic surge of homesickness. She must get back to England and find out what is happening in her own family. Both her cousins are of age for military duty and she knows they will be in the thick of the fighting. She packs her bags and leaves Paris for the coast.
In Calais, Elspeth finds herself in a tide of stranded, panicked travelers, frightened refugees and wounded soldiers. The soldiers were left on the dock to await transport ships as the ambulances brought more and more wounded from the front. Elspeth is horrified by their condition and quickly purchases some supplies so she can bring water and what little nursing she is capable of to the wounded men. A series of the kind of events that can happen only in war lead her to the front where she finds herself in danger of being blown to bits while helping load the injured into the available ambulances.
It is here that Elspeth runs into an old friend, Captain Peter Gilchrist, who pulls her away from the battle and leads her to safety. They are separated during the fighting but Elspeth manages to make it off the field and on to a ship. The entire experience has had a profound effect on her. She heads home but has every intention of returning to the front, determined to get the training she needs to become a nursing sister and do what she can for the war effort. She keeps her plan from her family, knowing her guardian firmly believes nursing to be the purview of the lower classes.
Elspeth loves her training and is delighted when she is sent back to France. It is clear that the war that was to end quickly will become an endless battle in which more and more of her old friends are listed on the casualty lists. As Elspeth does her best to save the men around her, she can only pray that someone else is doing their best for those she loves. As she encounters Peter again, she realizes he is one of those people. But is she free to love him? Or is her fate Alain? As the war rages on around her. all Elspeth can be sure of is that there is nothing she can be sure of.
This novel is a bit of a fusion of different genres. It has a distinct womanís fiction style with its first person narrator describing her adventures and growth over the course of war. It has a bit of a mystery and is told in the same style as the Bess Crawford mystery series done by the same author. Primarily it is a love story. Not so much a romance since it is not one hero and heroine racing towards the altar but it is a tale of how we find love, of how confusing love can be when you are young and just discovering it, of how it happens when we donít expect it. I found that to be terrifically romantic but if you are someone who requires the traditional road to the HEA, this may not be for you. The good news is that there is an HEA.
I absolutely loved Elspeth. She was a great person to go on an adventure with. She combined just the right amount of bravado with common sense and had a great personality to boot. I also really liked Peter Ė he was an excellent English hero: reticent but eloquent when he needed to be, kind but with a bit of tough love for your own good, unromantic but good hearted. Alain had the sort of charming personality mixed with romanticism and dash that you would wish for in a French love interest. All the secondary characters were well drawn and had the perfect amount of page space in the novel. No one stole the show but neither did anybody appear strictly there to forward the plot either.
The history in this novel is terrific. The author never takes time to bore us with the details but you feel immersed in the time period. Everything from the attitudes of the people towards proper behavior to living arrangements and class structures is presented in a natural way that allows the author to both impart the information and make it part of the story.
I would strongly recommend this novel to fans of Downton Abbey or fans of the other Todd series. I can recommend it to any romance fan looking for something a bit different but with a wonderful HEA. Itís a great look at a once forgotten era and a terrific love story as well.
-- Maggie Boyd
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