Vivienne de la Mare is the mother of two daughters; daughter-in-law to an elderly woman in the throes of Alzheimer’s; and wife to a soldier from whom she is emotionally separated. With her husband off fighting the war, Vivienne is responsible for feeding and caring for her small family as well as protecting them.
Guernsey is a small island in the English Channel where the islanders had once felt removed from the war. All of that changed on the day the Germans moved in. Vivienne witnesses the horrors of war when the harbor town of the island is bombed and her best friend’s husband dies in front of her eyes. Her thoughts fly to her small family – her daughters and mother-in-law – and prays that they are alright on the family farm. She is relieved when she returns home and finds them alive and well.
But the Occupation has begun and the German soldiers move in, requisitioning homes, vehicles, and other items for their own use. A handful of German soldiers moves in next door to Vivienne’s farm. As the Germans go about their business Vivienne is drawn to watching them. One especially piques her interest. In time she accepts the man, Gunther, as her lover. They are circumspect in their meetings so that neither Vivienne’s daughters or mother-in-law are aware of their affair.
As things on the island go from bad to worse, Vivienne comes face-to-face with her emotions. She realizes that she has fallen in love with Gunther and he in turn saves her from being sent away from the island since she was not a native-born islander.
Secretly, Vivienne helps an escaped prisoner who her youngest daughter has befriended. Her guilt at keeping this from Gunther takes on a life of its own when she hides the man, Kirill, in her attic and Gunther hears his coughing late at night. Vivienne passes it off as her mother-in-law being sick but worries that Gunther will report her nonetheless. When he goes off for a two week leave, the authorities raid her home. To take suspicion off of her, Kirill, openly walks through the orchard knowing full well that he will die. He is shot in full sight of Vivienne, Evelyn (the mother-in-law), and Millie (the six year old daughter). Thankfully none of the women are arrested.
When Gunther returns Vivienne breaks off their romance, hating herself but feeling that Gunther had betrayed her before he went on leave. When he is reassigned to the Russian front, she belatedly realizes that she wants him back but misses him before his departure.
This story was well-told and described. I felt that I was there during the different seasons on Guernsey and could feel the chill of the salt air in winter as well as the warm sun of summer. I would have liked a bit more of dialogue between Vivienne and Gunther but they didn’t seem like folks who talked a lot, even in private. There are so many conflicting emotions running through Vivienne at any given time as I’m sure there were with most people during the war.
But the thread that weaves this story together is the question of what a person would do to keep their family safe, keep food on the table, and keep clothes on their backs. It is a question that we would do well to keep in mind in precarious economic times.
A Soldier’s Wife gives us this different perspective of life during World War II. The islanders are at a distance from the fighting for one thing. Through the handful of Vivienne’s German neighbors, we see the occupying army not so much as a military body but as real men who had other lives and occupations; indeed, some of them dislike the war as much as the islanders. This book caused me to delve into my own emotions. What would each of us do to protect someone we love?