The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies 

The Welsh Girl

by Peter Ho Davies

Published by Houghton Mifflin

336 pages, 2007

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Love and Other Wars

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Esther has a rough life. Her father is a poor shepherd in northern Wales, her mother died when she was a child, and although she was the brightest in school and had ambitions to expand her horizons, she's had to quit school early to help her father. Now she's 17 and a barmaid. It's 1944, and she's already lost two people she loved; first it was her mother, and then the war took the boy she loved. It also took the boy she didn't, Rhys, the son of her school teacher, the one whose proposal she had turned down before he left.

Now she's seeing a British sapper, not a good idea for several reasons. Firstly, these hard core Welsh don't have any use for the British. In fact, they hate them as much as the Germans. Secondly, he's not nice. She's thinking elopement; he's thinking any way he can get it before he's shipped out. The inevitable happens, and after a forced sexual encounter, naturally she becomes pregnant. This is when a daughter needs a mother. Her laconic father is not the kind she can confide in.

Can things get any worse for Esther? Believe it or not, they can, and do.

Although they didn't tell the locals what they were up to, the regiment her nasty British boyfriend belonged to was building a German prisoner of war camp practically in Esther's backyard --not something that the locals are happy about. Then there's Jim, a young evacuee ostensibly sent to Wales for protection from the bombs destroying southern England, but more probably so that his mother can see her boyfriend without distractions. Jim's a tough, scrawny little lad, and Esther, who was sent to choose an evacuee to help her and her father on the farm, was touched by his pathetic toughness. She's paying the price for her soft heart; Jim is running her ragged.

Karsten, a handsome and intelligent corporal, is one of the prisoners who winds up at the POW camp. Because his widowed mother runs a guest house in Germany, he has also learned English. He manages to escape and guess where he winds up? Esther hides him and gives him food, a dangerous thing to do. There is no future for the young couple, and in fact, other than one tryst, there can be no romance either, although all sentimental readers will want it. Karsten is the boy Esther should have had, after all. But all is not fair is love and war; a German prisoner can have no truck with a Welsh girl.

At first, Esther says nothing about the father of her child, allowing everyone to assume that it's Rhys', the boy who went off to war and was killed. Everyone knew he was sweet on her. When she sees how easily this false assumption is swallowed by her father, and how it gives hope to Rhys' grieving mother, the deception sticks. Now she will never escape the lonely croft, her future shrunk to no choices at all. And then her father is killed.

Framing this sad little tale is the stranger story of Rotheram, a German Jewish refugee. He and his mother left for England before the Nazis turned against them, and he has been working in Intelligence during the war, translating documents. The novel begins with Rotheram being sent to interrogate Rudolf Hess, held by the British since his flying mission three years earlier resulted in capture, to see if he's mentally fit to stand trial. It's this section with Rotheram and Hess that I found particularly intriguing. Eventually, so late in the novel that you forget all about him, he is sent to Snowdonia to try to find an escaped POW in Northern Wales. That would be, you guessed it, Karsten. Rotheram shows up again at the end of the book, almost like an M.C., tying up all the loose ends and filling in the missing bits. He is definitely the winner in this tale while Karsten suffers the worst fate of all. Badly beaten by his fellow prisoners of war when he is returned to the camp. After the war he's returned to a “home” that is probably as bad as the POW camp, an impoverished, razed Eastern Germany that has fallen under Soviet control. It seems he has less choices than Esther.

Davies, who was raised in England but has since chosen the United States as his home, has two short-story collections to his credit: The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. Many will enjoy this first novel. Me, I longed for a less victimized heroine who would make different, less clichéd choices. | June 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.