War is Heck

It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting to convince my husband Victor that I needed to go to  England and France if I wanted Mary’s Crossing, the WWII romance novel I was writing, to be as true-to-life as possible. I’d already spent the last year reading dozens of books, interviewing veterans, watching countless WWII movies, perusing innumerable websites, and listening to hundreds of interviews recorded by the National WWII Museum.

Certainly, secondary research is all well and good, but I had yet to fully capture the emotional and physical journeys of my two main characters: Eugene Walsh, a naval officer from a small town in northern California who lands on Utah Beach on D-Day; and Claudette Delors, a French woman trying to return to her village in occupied France. For that to happen, I felt I needed to see what they saw. I wanted to walk beside them.

Which meant, of course, that Victor and our three-year-old daughter, Loy, were going to walk beside them as well.

***

I’d developed the book’s rudimentary historical plot in 1998, when during a trip to France with Victor, we chanced upon the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where, on June 10, 1944, every man, woman, and child, was rounded up by Waffen-SS troops and executed. The men were shot to death; the women and children herded inside the village church and burned alive.

When he saw the devastation, President de Gaulle ordered that a wall be erected around the town so future generations would never forget. The “Village des Martyrs,” as it is known today, looks almost exactly as it did in 1944. We spent hours there, silently strolling the haunted ruins through a light drizzle. By the time we got back to the car, I knew in my bones I’d write about it someday.

oradour-sur-glane-1

***

The modern day segment of the plotline floated into my mind’s harbor in 2003 (by then I’d had two novels published). While out on a walk, Victor casually mentioned an article he’d read about the Queen Mary 2which was to be the fastest ocean liner ever to be built.

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Its maiden voyage was planned for 2004 and it would be large enough to accommodate 2620 people.

“So, basically, everyone who lives here could fit on that ship,” I’d said, referring to our hometown of Nevada City, California. “How weird would it be for a whole town to sail together across the Atlantic Ocean?”

A weird idea, indeed, and more than a little provocative. A few weeks later, I finished an outline for my next novel’s plot: The small gold mining town of Lost Hill, California, is in turmoil because the Mionee Indian tribe has applied to build a casino on its outskirts (I based this on the real-life battle consuming the Gold Rush town of Plymouth, CA). Eugene Walsh is Lost Hill’s curmudgeon, embittered by the tragic events of WWII. He is also the town’s richest man. His only friend is Henry Weymouth, an unassuming house inspector who plays chess with Eugene most every evening. When Eugene dies, it is up to Henry to see that Eugene’s wishes, spelled out in his will, are carried out: Eugene offers to pay the Mionee to take their casino elsewhere. He also bequeaths every Lost Hill adult $10,000, if everyone in town agrees to accompany his ashes to France on the RMS Queen Mary 2. He wants his remains to be spread on the grave of a woman he met on the original RMS Queen Mary in 1944, back when he was on his way to war, and she was on her way home. After a lot of contentious debate, the entire town agrees to the proposition and travels aboard the QM2. Unresolved tensions between main characters flare throughout the crossing. Henry and Julia (Eugene’s estranged granddaughter) fall in love. Finally, they all reach Oradour-sur-Glane where lessons are learned and a shocking truth about Claudette is discovered.

***

By the beginning of 2005 I’d written a first draft and scoured every bit of historical research I could lay my hands on. My office was crammed full with books. Maps lined my walls. But so many details were still hazy. First off, I needed to see both ships. Flying down to Long Beach, where the original Queen Mary—now a hotel—was berthed was easy enough. I paid the admission price and walked around the decks, getting a feel for what Eugene might have experienced while traveling to England as a twenty-three-year-old naval ensign. I got a better sense of what the QM looked like when she was fitted out to be a troopship.

troops on queen mary 16x9

During the peak of the buildup to D-Day, as many as 16,000 troops were crowded onto a ship designed to hold just over 1,900 passengers. A glamorous and comfortable crossing it was not.

Most importantly, I saw the isolation ward where Eugene first meets Claudette.

isolation ward

But…how to describe the QM2? And what of the villages in England and the battlefields in France where Eugene spent months? It would have been remiss to set huge portions of the plot in places I knew only from photographs. Or, well, that was the logic I presented to Victor. “Loy is three. She’s so easy. We can travel cheap and stay with friends,” I’d offered. I also reminded him that his parents would be in Alsace for the summer. He said he’d “look into it,” and went back to reading to Loy.

The QM2’s incentives for first-time passengers turned out to be generous enough for us to afford a second-class (Princess Grill) stateroom. We contacted friends of friends who lived within driving distances of the many museums and sites I planned to visit. The grandparents even offered up some funds as incentive to detour northward for a visit.

In late May we boarded the QM2 and began our six-day transatlantic crossing. I spent those six days noting the myriad details I would use for the voyage of Lost Hill’s inhabitants. I charmed an invitation into the first-class (Queen’s Grill) area of the ship where butlers hung clothes and accompanying dogs had their own playground. During the day we three sipped strong tea in the ballroom whilst being serenaded by a string quartet. loylisaqm2At night, before fetching Loy from the daycare run by British nannies, we drank martinis in the Commodore Club overlooking the sleek bow. We listened to lectures, stared up in amazement in the planetarium, splashed one another in the pools, jogged the running track, and stretched out on comfy deck chairs in the breezy sunshine. By the time we docked in Southampton I knew, amongst other particulars, exactly what my characters ate for breakfast and what pieces of art they passed on their way to the dining room.

***

We rented a car and drove down to South Devon where I scouted out where Eugene lived and trained for the invasion. I’d chosen Salcombe, one of the three departure points for the Utah Beach landing force. We put Loy in her stroller and roamed the charming seaside village so I could affix to my mind what Eugene saw as he stepped out of his Quonset hut each morning before heading to the harbor for military exercises.

In the village of Frogmore I found the 19th century inn where he and Claudette met for a second time. I sat in the room where they made love and vowed to be together after the war ended. We picnicked in the grassy field where Eugene begged Claudette not to go to France.

***

And then, like my characters, we were off to France. To honor the thousands of men who lost their lives on D-Day, we crossed the English Channel on June 6, exactly sixty-one years after Eugene did.

lisamuseumI filled notebook after notebook as we wandered battlefields, war museums, beaches, and cemeteries. Since Eugene commanded an LCVP, a small landing craft, there was nothing I didn’t know about LCVPs—on paper. 
amphibious-military-vehicles-wwi-to-presentIn Saint-Marie-du-Mont I got to climb onto a real one. I stood where Eugene would have stood as he and his men crossed the choppy waters.

If we knew a particular exhibition displayed gruesome or violent imagery, Victor would take Loy to a nearby playground or bistro while I, alone, immersed myself in the many displays of Nazi brutality. Hours later, stinking of death, I’d come out of the darkness, blinking against the bright sun, and go meet up with my husband and child. I’d desperately want to tell Victor about my ghastly discoveries, but inevitably he’d shush me. “No, Lisa. Not in front of Loy.” Like a puppy being house-trained I learned to hold in the horrors.

I returned to Oradour-sur-Glane, and when I saw the remains of the slaughter through Eugene’s eyes, as if for the first time, I was again shaken to my core. Since our last visit an underground memorial had been built to exhibit photographs, Oradour-victims-2_articleimage (1)films, and recordings about the tragedy. Personal effects found among the carnage were presented in clean climate-controlled glass cases. A watch, frozen at 3:15. A charred schoolbook. A hairbrush which may have belonged to Claudette.

 

After the obligatory trip to Alsace to see the grandparents we set off for London, where I’d reserved time in the Imperial War Museum’s extensive library. On July 7, the night before our planned departure from France, suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks throughout the city, killing 52 people and injuring over 700.

6/6/44
7/7/05

The Chunnel ceased running, so we were forced to return our car and ferry back over. We disembarked in Dover on July 8, stepping onto a vastly different landscape than we’d left a month earlier. There were police everywhere. Travel was restricted. A sense of doom and danger permeated the air. Here, I’d been consumed by a war long over, and was now suddenly slapped into a present-day conflict.

We hunkered down at a friend’s house in East Sheen. Instead of traveling into London together, Victor and Loy stayed behind. Every morning, as I boarded a train, I wondered if the terrorists were finished terrorizing or if I’d become another innocent victim who happened to choose the wrong train car. The fear overwhelmed me. Would I see my family again, I asked myself as I glanced furtively at the other passengers. I looked into their faces. Scanned their clothing for signs of bombs. Only when I reached my stop and exited the train was I able to breathe again.

Sure, I could have eschewed the paranoia by staying in the suburbs, but knowing the Imperial War Museum housed tens of thousands of primary sources from WWII, I was determined to finish my research. (Recall please, that in 2005 the internet was a far less powerful resource.) For the next week I scoured innumerous medical records from Queen Victoria Hospital (Claudette was assigned there). I flipped through thousands of photographs of naval training exercises. climbingnetsI held in my hand actual letters and diaries from soldiers, sailors, and civilians. There, in the small silent room I read their stories and let myself get transported back in time so that I could almost grasp their feelings: The gung-ho young men excited to be traveling abroad, as if going off to war were an innocuous adventure. The mothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends who cloaked their apprehension with words of pride.

***

Back in California I sequestered myself in my writing cottage. Now that I had all this data, my characters would finally get to see what I’d seen. Hear what I’d heard. I would color every scene with my memories and bring history alive. I would make Eugene suffer so much, he’d return to Lost Hill a broken man.

What I hadn’t planned on was returning to Nevada City a broken woman. Two weeks after I started rewriting Mary’s Crossing, I fell into a deep depression.

What had I been thinking, trying to recreate war? What had possessed me to believe it’d be easy to transfer the grisly scenes onto a page? I was beholden to the dead and constantly felt the pressure to get it exactly right. I began questioning my ability to tell the story. I hated everything and everyone.

I had become Eugene Walsh, the town curmudgeon.

One afternoon after I’d walked into the house and slammed the door because I felt so grumpy, Victor said, “You’ve become a real jerk, you know.” Before I could get defensive, he added, “Maybe you should stop writing that book. It’s just pissing you off.”

He was right. Maybe I should. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced.

“Mommy. I made this for you. Drink it before you go,” Loy said, handing me a plastic martini glass filled with green Mardi Gras beads. I drank it, making gulping noises as the beads dribbled all over my face and down onto the floor.

I handed the empty glass back to her so she could wash it in her fake sink. “Yum. That was tasty. Thank you.”

“Did it make you feel better, Mommy?”

“Yeah, did it?” Victor asked.

I left without answering and flew down the hill, jumped over the fence, clomping through the neighbor’s yard and over to the gravel road until I hit the trail that lined the wide creek flowing below our property. I cut right at the grove of buckeyes and carefully picked my way across the white boulders to a small eddy hurried-rushing-waters-of-a-stream_800where we often brought hot chocolate and a picnic lunch. Where I usually panicked as Loy walked along the slippery rocks, knowing that if she fell into the fast creek she’d be washed away in the blink of an eye.

I crept up to the pool and dangled my right hand in the icy water until my fingers started to sting. I welcomed the pain.

***

My doctor prescribed Lexapro. In a matter of weeks my anxiety was gone and my anger subdued. I finished writing Mary’s Crossing, sent it off to my agent, and then promptly titrated off the drug. I liked being on an even keel, emotionally speaking, but I’d become less sharp; my cognition was less nimble. I wanted my full brain back again.

In the end, my agent never did sell the novel. Editors loved “the conceit of the story,” and many adored Eugene and Claudette, although the majority of readers thought it was overwritten. There were too many main characters, and they found the present-day plotline less compelling than the historical section.

Instead of rewriting it, I moved to Bali where I began writing a different novel altogether: one that had nothing to do with war or death.

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” 
                             ― Edmund Burke

I figure someday I’ll return to Eugene and Claudette’s fateful tale, but in the next version, I’ll cull the casino story and focus only on the love story. After all my family and I experienced during those months abroad—from landscapes swathed in graves of dead soldiers to the London bombing—I’ve come to accept that there will never be an end to war in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime. We, as individuals, can only do so much to stop hatred and its violent consequences. But we must try to attain peace, if not for the sake of our children, for the sake of those who lost their lives in wars past and wars present.

I know that my writing a romance novel that takes place during a war will not change the course of history. Eugene and Claudette are fictional characters sprung from my imagination, but through them, because of them, I have to believe that love will someday prevail.

 

 

 

 

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