Preview/Review: The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies

Welsh Girl 1st
Photo from Biblio’s Bloggins

Specs  on The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies 

  • Published in 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 352 pages
  • Historical fiction, novel

Summary of The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies 

Set in rural Wales, a small community of Welsh people go about their lives as World War II slowly comes to an end (although they do not yet know it) with the Invasion of Normandy.

Our protagonist, Esther, who longs to travel the world, is stuck with family farm work, caring instead for the sheep and her widowed father. She abandons her dreams of travel and study after the death of her mother. Now,  her days are filled with chores and looking after her resident evacuee, a young boy named Jim. At night, Esther works as a barmaid at a nearby pub. There, she serves the local Welshmen, English soldiers and a group of traveling entertainers.

Across the English Channel in Normandy, the German soldiers are seized by a surprise invasion. Leading his diminishing group of men, Karsten is urged to surrender. His team is taken captive.

A POW camp is set up near Esther’s farm where Karsten is kept. With Jim and his mischievous friends taunting the German POWs, Esther follows to keep him out of trouble. Soon enough, Karsten and Esther are strangely drawn toward each other, risking national loyalty as each struggles to determine their own sense of selves.

Before You Read The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies 

  • Brush up on your World War II history

Set in World War II (1939-1945) the story begins with the Invasion of Normandy (D-Day) in June of 1944. The Battle of Normandy freed Western Europe from Nazi Germany control. It was pivotal in ending war in Europe and often referred to as “the beginning of the end”.

  • In preparation for mass evacuations from German bombing, Britain appointed certain locations as reception areas. Rural Wales was considered to be a safe point and children were sent to the countryside for safekeeping. Welsh families often took in these children into their homes, providing shelter and food.
  • Get to know geography

Wales is a peninsula part of the United Kingdom. The Northern, Western and Southern regions all touch Saint George’s Channel, the body of water between Wales and Ireland. The Eastern border of Wales is shared with England.

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Normandy is the Northwest part of France. Between Normandy and London is the English Channel.

Wales is extraordinarily scenic. It has a strong coastline, mountainous terrain, rolling hills and national parks. The Welsh have Celtic roots, and unlike the majority of the UK, the Welsh are bilingual, speaking both English and Welsh.

1933-1941. Hess served as the right hand man to Adolf Hitler and was partially responsible for the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. In 1941, he flew himself to Scotland to negotiate peace with the United Nations. He was immediately captured for questioning whereupon he claimed amnesia. Eventually, he was charged for crimes against peace and committed suicide while serving a life sentence at age 93.

  • Prepare for shifting perspectives.

There’s a lengthy prologue you don’t want to skip. The scenes revolve an interrogation after English forces have captured Rudolph Hess for interrogation.

For the meat of the book, chapters take turn focusing on (mainly) two different characters—Esther, a Welsh woman, and Karsten, a German POW.

Finish up the story by reading the epilogue. It’s a nice bookend to the prologue.

  • The concept of cynefin

Esther, the daughter to a shepherd, often refers to the concept of cynefin, which, if translated literally, means “habitat.” Cynefin is the idea knowing innate belonging, like a homing device—your territory, your responsibility, your loyalty and identity. For the sheep, this is how they know their land and never wander. But this mechanism of cynefin is passed down the female line.

 Thoughts on The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies 

Get ready to be swept off your feet. Davies creates such a beautiful and delicate portrait of a woman bound to time and circumstances that do not fit her wants. She struggles and fights with the present and hopeful future; the life she has and the life she wanted, and what stops her from breaking free. While war rages on and emotions run high, every moves at the height of a whisper. No one really says what they feel or mean given the circumstances, adding fuel to the flame.

With layers upon layers of extended metaphors and illustrations, I’m still left thinking about the story even after I’ve finished the book. The scenes are concrete yet dreamlike and ethereal in nature, perhaps to mimic the shifting desires and thoughts within characters. Many other reader have described the writing as “quiet”, and once you pick it up, you’ll understand why.

Our characters deal with shifting identities, responsibilities, question their loyalties and values. It’s so much content squeezed into one book. Yet every bit of it is as visual as it is philosophical. (Is that the right word I want to use?)

Davies is at deft at painting a picture of the scene as he is making us feel it. As if we move with rolling hills and shifting winds, we understand intimately what Esther and Karsten endure emotionally.

Another great thing he does? Davies successfully creates a scene in just one or two sentences, takes us back to our own repertory of memories and pulls out that one moment containing a very detailed feeling. The effect: we get the character immediately.

On a lesser note, we have plenty of books that vilify the Germans and Nazi soldiers. With The Welsh Girl we get a human face to the massacre. We get multiple views, from different soldiers, different beliefs and fears. It is, at the very least, and perhaps at most, an unexpected and unique take on an overplayed character type.

Who won’t like this book? People who want something fast-paced. This is a slow read, but it’s also a heavy topic. So, do the math, yo.

Other Reviews on The Welsh Girl by POC Writer Peter Ho Davies 

The New York Times

The Guardian

 

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