Wickwythe Hall by Judithe Little is the kind of book I love, so I’m not at all surprised that it won First Place for Historical Fiction in this year’s Reader Views Literary Awards. It’s the perfect blend of history and interesting characters you come to care about. Right from the opening pages, the reader is caught up in the dilemma faced by Annelle, a young French woman who was orphaned with her two brothers and grew up in a convent. It’s May 1940 and the Germans have just invaded France. Annelle has intended to become a nun, but now with her older brothers fighting in North Africa and the sisters at the convent wanting to pray rather than flee to safety, Annelle makes the split decision to flee south, hoping to reach North Africa and find her brothers. The reader witnesses Annelle’s excruciating flight along the French roads, on her bicycle until it is damaged, and then on foot. Eventually, through a twist of events, she gets out of France, but rather than going to North Africa, she finds herself a refugee in England.
And that’s just what happens in the opening chapter.
Once in England, Annelle finds herself working at Wickwythe Hall. The other servants are suspicious that she might be a spy, but all Annelle is concerned about is finding a way to communicate with her brothers. The large English country estate is owned by Tony and Mabry Springs. Tony is a landed British aristocrat, but Mabry is an American heiress who isn’t as caught up in doing things the English way as her husband and those around her. Mabry is very concerned that the war will soon lead to an invasion of England, and she is doing everything she can to help the war effort, including taking in twenty-three children who are being sent to the country from London for their safety.
Tony and Mabry also have connections with important people, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One week, Churchill comes to visit and the house is turned into central command for the war effort. It is hard enough for Mabry and the staff to meet all of Churchill’s idiosyncratic requests, but even harder for Mabry is that in Churchill’s entourage is Reid Carr, a fellow American whose proposal of marriage she long ago refused.
Mabry’s married life has not been perfect. She and Tony have tried many times to have children, always leading to miscarriages; as a result, they have grown apart. Now Mabry finds herself wondering whether Reid is still interested in her and whether she is still interested in him. He is flirtatious, pointing out that the Mabry he once knew would have been more willing to go swimming at night and do plenty of other things Mabry no longer has an inclination for.
But Reid is not really at Wickwythe Hall to flirt. President Roosevelt, unable to get Congress to back him in declaring war on Germany, has sent Reid to be his unofficial ambassador to keep him and Churchill informed of each other’s activities. Once Mabry gets some inkling of Reid’s purpose, she asks him if he can help Annelle find her brothers. This request results in a chain of events beyond what any of the characters can control.
What makes Wickwythe Hall such a wonderful novel is that the characters come to life in its pages. I became deeply enmeshed in their decisions and especially Mabry’s temptations to break her marriage vows to be with Reid. The novel’s conclusion is not what I would have expected, and yet it ends perfectly. The other great thing about this novel is that not only is it historically accurate but it teaches the reader new things about history. Operation Catapult, which I had never heard of before, becomes central to the novel. It concerns Churchill’s efforts to keep the French fleet from becoming Hitler’s property to be used against England. I won’t say more about how Little works this historical event into the plot because it will ruin the novel’s suspense.
I also appreciated the descriptions in the novel. I’m not big on a lot of description, but I think Judithe Little knows how to sprinkle in description as appropriate to give color without boring the reader. Some of her scenes are downright magical, such as of the orphans playing at Wickwythe Hall and descriptions of the landscape. In addition, Little’s style rather reminded me of one of my other favorite English wartime novels, The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge. Little knows how to reassure us of good in the world, while still giving us a realistic depiction of how frightening and stressful war can be, and how brave the English were in their opposition to Hitler.
All around, Wickwythe Hall will appeal to World War II history buffs, Anglophiles like myself, and anyone who loves a good love story about strong, realistic, and well-rounded characters. You’ll find it hard to put down.