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Review: We Must Be Brave, by Frances Liardet
Putnam, 2019. 452 pp. $27

When German bombs fall on Southampton, England, in December 1940, the stream of homeless refugees reaching Upton, fifteen miles away, includes a six-year-old girl. According to the tag on her clothes, she’s Pamela Pickering, but no one accompanies her or shepherds her to Upton. It seems a couple women told her to get on a particular bus, or maybe it was her mother.

But circumstances don’t immediately matter, for little Pamela has nowhere to go and, as you might expect, is very upset. Consequently, young Ellen Parr, recently married to the much older owner of the local grain mill, takes the child in, along with other evacuees. For the moment.

Lower High Street, Southampton, after German bombing raids, early December 1940 (courtesy Ministry of Information and Imperial War Museum, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022759, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

You need not be clairvoyant to imagine how long that moment will stretch. Ellen’s attempts to trace Pamela’s surviving kin come to nothing, except to learn that the child’s mother died in an air raid, and her father hasn’t been in the picture for a while. Ellen’s husband, Selwyn, tries a little harder to find Pamela’s family; he doesn’t want the girl to remain, even after the other people they’re sheltering leave.

But he’s the soul of kindness, and he can’t help notice how attached Ellen has become to Pamela. He’s also keenly aware that he’s nearly twice Ellen’s age, and since the previous war left him impotent because of shell shock, she won’t have a child any other way. Nevertheless, you still need no crystal ball to guess that Pamela’s a borrowed child.

Like Selwyn, We Must Be Brave is kind and gentle despite the trying, bloody times, a reminder that war often brings out the best in people, not just the worst. The theme is rescue, what it means and how it works in two directions, for the motherless Pamela rescues Ellen too. To Liardet’s credit, she makes Pamela a difficult, if rewarding, charge — willful, disobedient, mercurial, capable of selfishness, yet passionate, resilient, and creative, the sort of child adults love to learn from. Ellen, though unsure of herself as a mother, understands right away that parenting is the art of the possible.

I like Liardet’s prose too, which, without attracting attention, conveys Ellen as a keen observer. This is warm, practical writing, like the narrator herself:

Somewhere in her sleeping mind she’d found a place without grief and knowledge, huddled into it like a mouse into a bole of a tree. I encircled her with my arms for five minutes or so, and she smelled of warm dry brushed cotton, and something else, that somewhat salty aroma of newly baked bread I had noticed when I lifted her off the seat of the bus. What was it? Her heated skin, her hair at the nape of her neck? I didn’t know.

Two aspects of We Must Be Brave trouble me. The first is Selwyn. I don’t understand why Ellen marries him; he seems more like a kindly, older brother, occasionally paternal, than a husband. Moreover, without a second thought, the night of Pamela’s arrival, Ellen places her in the marital bed — perhaps not surprising, but she keeps doing so. Maybe that persistence doesn’t surprise, either, but Selwyn has no reaction. That’s peculiar.

His sexual incapability resulting from the war — a trope, there — would make objections more difficult to lodge, yet he should have feelings about the interloper, I think. Is Ellen afraid of or repelled by sex? Not clear, so it’s hard to say whether she’s just not interested. The narrative suggests that, but for the war, the newlyweds would have happily led a childless life, traveling often, unencumbered. But exactly where her feelings lie never comes through, except when, years later, a friend makes a tactless, if accurate, remark about him.

Perhaps to explain Ellen’s attraction to Selwyn, the narrative backtracks to her excruciating childhood with a snobbish mother, a deadbeat father who falls into financial ruin and abandons them, and the grinding poverty that follows. That’s problem number two. I get that Selwyn’s kindness and stability offer Ellen what she lacked, and her hand-to-mouth existence then, told in unsparing detail, hits home. But that section, rather too long by half, still doesn’t persuade me about Selwyn — or at least, Ellen might entertain regrets, now and then — and slows the narrative.

In a novel like this, endgame matters perhaps more than in most, and though I get uncomfortable when the story wanders too close to modern times — not my taste —Liardet brings her narrative to a satisfying conclusion. We Must Be Brave is one of those novels that will speak to you after you’ve finished it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.