Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Pair of Persephones: Doreen and On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of Doreen,
taken from a 1940s printed silk scarf.

My ILL overload is finished; I've finally returned the last of them, and I'm happy to report I finished eight of the ten books!  However, I now have a slew of books to review.  I'm combining two book reviews in this post because I read two books back to back which seemed to go together -- two books set in opposite sides of WWII, and dealing with parents and children.

The first is Doreen by Barbara Noble.  It was my thirty-third Persephone, and it's one of the best ones so far.  This book deals with a heartwrenching topic.  During the London Blitz, parents were encouraged to send their children to foster families in the country, sometimes for years.  Families were faced with a terrible decision: stay together and face dangerous bombs, or send the children away to safety and suffer an extended separation.

The book begins with Mrs. Rawlings and her ten-year-old daughter Doreen, who have spent the night in a London bomb shelter.  A single mother, Mrs. Rawlings decided to keep her only child close after all the other children in Doreen's school were evacuated.  She is beginning to regret her decision and is overwhelmed with worry, and has a breakdown in the ladies' room of the office building where she works as a cleaner.  Another employee, Miss Osborne, offers to contact her brother and sister-in-law, a childless couple living in the country, to see if they would be willing to take Doreen.

What follows is a great story, with fascinating conflict.  Geoffrey is a country solicitor, ineligible to serve due to health reasons, and he and his wife Francie were unable to have a child, so they jump at the chance to take Doreen, whom they treat as their own.  She's shy, but sweet and very bright, and she begins to blossom under their care.  Except for missing her mother, Doreen is very happy living with them.

However, things become more complicated when Mrs. Rawlings spends Christmas with Doreen and the Osbornes, and begins to feel that her daughter is becoming closer to her foster parents.  She begins to worry about will this change their relationship, about the class differences between Doreen and the Osbornes, and how this will affect Doreen in the long run.

What I loved best about this book is how well it showed both sides.  Ultimately, all the adults in the situation want what's best for this child, yet I couldn't help feeling very strongly both ways.  When the author showed the mother's perspective, I was completely on her side, but when it switched to the Osbornes, I wanted Doreen to stay with them.  The book raised so many questions about class-consciousness and what it means to be a parent.

The endpapers from On the Other Side:
Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The second book also deals with a mother during wartime; however, this is a true story, a memoir of WWII written in letters, and the children in question are already grown and are never sent the letter. When she wrote On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946,  Matilde Wolff-Monckeberg was in her sixties, living in Hamburg when the war began, and four of her five grown children were living abroad during the war, in America, Wales, South America, and Sweden.  Her oldest daughter stayed in Germany, where she worked as a doctor.  Matilde's letters of life in Hamburg could never be sent due to censorship, and in fact could have had both her and her husband arrested (possibly even killed) had they been discovered.  Her youngest daughter found them after her death and had them published in book form, and they are both terrifying and fascinating.

Matilde grew up in Hamburg, the daughter of the Lord Mayor, and met and married her first husband, while studying singing in Italy.  Her second husband became Rector of the University of Hamburg.  Her letters are slices of life during wartime, in which she describes the escalation of the war, including the lack of food, the terror of the bombings, her despair over Hitler and the Nazi party, and the loss of friends and family during the violence.

Tillie and her family were luckier than most, since they had money, access to good health care, and various places to live.  Her apartment survived the bombings relatively unscathed and she also spent time in the country with extended family during the worst parts.  However, food was in shorter and shorter supply, and for years at a time she had no contact with four of her children.  The final year of the book is actually one of the longest portions (it was easier to write without the constant threat of bombs or arrest), and it's almost the most heartbreaking.  Finally, the horrible war was over, and the Germans who survived still didn't have enough food and were facing the misery of both reconstruction and the guilt of causing the war.  Tillie doesn't really discuss the rise of Hitler and fascism too much but it appeared that she opposed the war.  I can only imagine that she was unable to leave due to her husband's position.

I was particularly interested in this book because years ago I did a summer exchange with a German family and I stayed in Kiel which is not that far from Hamburg.  I didn't really see anything in Hamburg but I did get to travel a bit in Germany and Denmark.  I do remember seeing the remains of some of the bunkers on the beaches in Denmark but we never really discussed the war, though I do know my host mother was in some kind of refugee camp as a child.

Anyway, I thought both of these books were fascinating looks at what life was like on the homefront from both sides of the war.  I still have an unread copy of Few Eggs and No Oranges, a Persephone nonfiction book which is another diary of life during wartime on the English side.  I'm eager to read that one soon.


  1. Both of these sound wonderful! I have On the Other Side and have dipped in and out of it, loving what I read, but Doreen is one of those Persephones that I've never heard too much about. I have always been very interested in reading about evacuees so I'll definitely need to track this one down!

  2. The second book sounds fascinating, I'll have to get it somehow. I've had a German pen-pal since I was about 10 and I find that the older people in Bavaria are unapologetic about the war. In fact it was our fault! I was told not to mention it of course. My friend and her generation didn't seem to know much about it at all as youngsters.

  3. Claire -- Doreen was just wonderful. I found the story so great because both sides were so sympathetic. I really hope more people start reading it, I don't hear about it nearly as much as some of the other Persephones.

    Katrina -- I really got the impression from this book that the people of Hamburg in general were not hard-line supporters of the war, that it was very cosmopolitan and international because it was a port city and had so much influence from outside. Tillie mentions several times that there's so much propaganda about the war and the aggression of other countries, which she doesn't believe. She doesn't explain why they can't leave but I suspect they can't because of her husband's position.

  4. That is such a good idea to compare those two like that; I did love Doreen. I think Few Eggs will give you yet another perspective on the WW Home fronts.

  5. I absolutely loved your review of Doreen, Karen. I have been wondering what my next Persephone title should be, and this sounds wonderful. Thanks for both reviews!

  6. Verity -- It really just worked out that way, they were both on the ILL list and were both fairly short, quick reads, so I ended up reading them back to back. I do want to read Few Eggs but the length is a little daunting!

    Col -- I really liked both, but Doreen really touched me because I have two girls and one is just about Doreen's age. I admire the selflessness of the parents who sent their children to safety but I could never be separated from her. I don't know how they did it!

  7. Both of these sound fascinating. I have read so many more books abt the Brits enduring WWII but few abt life in Germany during those years.

  8. These sound very good. I must catch up with Persephone titles. I'm also interested in Susan Glaspell and some of the American female writers Persephone have published.

  9. Gosh, these are a couple of great reviews. The way you described the first one about sympathizing with both sides is a key indication of a great compelling book.

    I know I'm new here, but ... what's a Persephone?

  10. I have two daughters as well, and I plan to pick up Doreen. Have you read Good Evening, Mrs. Craven? That's another Persephone I'm sure you'd love!

  11. Even though Doreen is not one of the better-known Persephones, it stil made my list of favorites last year. Glad you enjoyed it. Few Eggs and No Oranges is in my tbr pile, too!

  12. These both sound so great. I'm fascinated by mother-child relationships. The history during the war sounds intense but interesting. I can't wait to find these books!


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