We Must Be Brave: A Novel
- By Frances Liardet
- G.P. Putnam’s Sons
- 464 pp.
- Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen
- April 2, 2019
Part war story, part exploration of one woman’s past, this beautifully written tale strikes readers with a musical resonance.
We Must Be Brave opens in 1940 during a devastating bombing raid on Southampton, a port in the south of England. Ellen, wife of the local miller, is assisting those bused to safe haven in Upton’s village hall, all of whom must be housed for the night and offered numerous restorative cups of tea. After Ellen has seen the last woman off the final bus, she finds a little girl abandoned on the back seat, fast asleep.
No one knows who the girl is, but she tells them her name is Pamela. As it turns out, Pamela’s mother was killed along with her lover when their Southampton hotel was leveled by a direct hit. Pamela had been sent outside to hold a place in the bus queue while the adults quarreled inside.
Ellen and her husband, Selwyn, take Pamela to live with them at the mill; they already have charge of three boys evacuated from London some time earlier. The childless Ellen develops a fierce maternal love for this small girl, who becomes a source of great joy. She revels in her scent: “She smelled warm, salty, of new-baked bread.”
But Pamela is not theirs to keep.
Toward the end of the war, Pamela’s father, divorced from her feckless mother, discovers his child’s whereabouts and takes her to live with his sister in Ireland. Pamela and Ellen exchange letters for a while before Pamela’s guardians put a stop to it, claiming that continued contact is too disruptive.
For Ellen, having grown up under the pall of loss, this heartbreak is not an altogether new experience. A cossetted child from a well-to-do family, she began to notice how often things went missing: First, her father, then her beautiful rocking horse, closely followed by her governess.
Her father shot himself, shamed by the financial ruin that left his family in dire straits. Her beloved teenage brother, Edward, soon left to join the merchant marines when it became clear that his mother could no longer provide for her two children. Ellen struggled to contribute to the household as her mother’s health and spirit deteriorating daily until she could no longer bear up, eventually dying miserably of cancer. Ellen felt alone and untethered until Selwyn came into her life.
But the most debilitating losses are the more recent ones — Pamela, followed in a few years by Selwyn. Ellen runs the mill, performs charitable acts for her friends and neighbors, and is as firmly rooted in village life as the parish church.
The redoubtable Lucy, her best friend from youth, buoys her spirit throughout these travails. As time passes, everything changes, as it must, but there are several surprises along the way. Years after Pamela’s departure, another little girl lays claim to Ellen’s heart, providing yet another opportunity for love and perseverance.
Several sections weave back and forth between 1932 and 2010, a potentially risky format that, in this case, serves the story well. The novel’s only weak spot lies in its first section, which reads like a humdrum WWII story, populated by characters who are not especially intriguing.
The book soars in the second section, where it delves into Ellen’s dismal childhood and the resilience that led her to a good job and, later, marriage. Rather than a war story, this is Ellen’s saga.
Author Frances Liardet’s prose can only be described as gorgeous — lyrical and abounding with fresh imagery of the countryside and its inhabitants. Here, Ellen describes a village catastrophe:
“The flood came during the night, heavy and incompressible, loading and overloading the riverbed and the mill channel until the water stopped falling, being the same height everywhere…The special silence woke me at three in the morning, and I got up and went to the window. A blackness was conquering the fields on either side of the embanked track, moving pantherlike into the woods beyond.”
As in that passage, the often heartrending melody of We Must Be Brave lingers long after its final page.
D.A. Spruzen earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and teaches writing in Northern Virginia. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. She is also author of an historical novel, The Blitz Business (Koehler Books), a poetry collection, Long in the Tooth (Finishing Line Press), and other works.