DEBORAH CROMBIE: What a treat we have today! One (two, actually) of my favorite authors, mother and son writing team CHARLES TODD (Charles and Caroline!) are here with us to talk about their new book featuring WWI battlefield nurse Bess Crawford, THE SHATTERED TREE, out on August 30th. (And what gorgeous cover!)
The Todds are such an inspiration to me. They write TWO terrific books a year, one featuring shell-shocked Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge in post WWI England, and the other featuring Bess, a colonel's daughter who joins the British nursing service at the beginning of the war, a time when nice young women did NOT do those things. The books are chock full of research but are so gripping that only later do you realize you've learned history. The Bess books are to me particularly vivid, because they are told in first person and often in the midst of the battlefield action.
Here's what happens in THE SHATTERED TREE:
the foot of a tree shattered by shelling and gunfire, stretcher-bearers
find an exhausted officer, shivering with cold and a loss of blood from
several wounds. The soldier is brought to battlefield nurse Bess
Crawford’s aid station, where she stabilizes him and treats his injuries
before he is sent to a rear hospital. The odd thing is, the officer
isn’t British—he’s French. But in a moment of anger and stress, he
shouts at Bess in German.
When Bess reports the incident to
Matron, her superior offers a ready explanation. The soldier is from
Alsace-Lorraine, a province in the west where the tenuous border between
France and Germany has continually shifted through history, most
recently in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, won by the Germans. But is
the wounded man Alsatian? And if he is, on which side of the war do his
sympathies really lie?
Of course, Matron could be right, but Bess
remains uneasy—and unconvinced. If he was a French soldier, what was he
doing so far from his own lines . . . and so close to where the Germans
are putting up a fierce, last-ditch fight?
When the French officer
disappears in Paris, it’s up to Bess—a soldier’s daughter as well as a
nurse—to find out why, even at the risk of her own life.
I loved this book! It was fascinating to see wartime Paris through Bess's eyes. And of course I was thrilled to have the chance to ask the Todds what inspired them. Here's Caroline to fill us in.
*Why Paris, when Bess was so at home in London and other parts of England?
Paris was where many English officers and a lot of Aussie enlisted men went to recuperate from their wounds, and we really hadn’t done much with it. So this was our chance, and that meant creating a French mystery to use it more thoroughly than an English mystery would have done. And THAT meant a whole bucket full of new research! We found some really fascinating material about the salons and a designer who worked on French Army uniforms, and all sorts of odd tidbits that didn’t fit the book but were fun to discover. You wouldn’t believe some of it. Like a French air ace and his relationship with a French designer.
*She was out of her comfort zone there—without her father’s knowledge and influence, without Simon, and so on. How did you manage that?
That made for very interesting opportunities! We needed some new characters. That meant learning enough about the period in France to draw them well. People who really would have been there, people Bess would have been able to turn to, not just handing her versions of her English background. You’ve done much the same in Cambridge and Cheshire—where your characters are out of their element.
*You bring back a very popular character in Captain Barkley, the American serving with the Canadian forces. How did he fit into this new setting?
He’s there to help Bess—but she doesn’t quite trust him! And he has his own agenda, one part of which is trying to keep Bess safe, and only succeeding in creating problems. Bess has been used to the freedom that being raised wherever the Regiment was sent, and she missed out on many of the more suffocating English views of women carrying over from the Victorians. He wants to make sure she doesn’t run into trouble, he wants to see her rest in bed and take care of her own wound and stay out of trouble, but Bess knows her own mind, and much as she likes the Captain, she just isn’t the sort of woman who is afraid of doing anything a man would disapprove of as “unladylike.” She’s more modern because of her upbringing than many of her contemporaries. And many of the young women who chose to become nurses often faced these ideas of what a well brought up young lady should see or do or know about. When it came to bathing the wounded, most Victorian women had never seen a grown man in his underwear much less stark naked, and for many it was more shocking than the wounds they’d suffered.
*Where does Bess go from here?
(How the devil do I know, we’ve only got a few chapters written!) Ahem. Next year’s Bess, A CASUALTY OF WAR, goes back to the Front as the war draws to a close. And there is a patient from Barbados in the Caribbean, serving as an English officer, who is certain he was shot by another English officer he recognized, although all the Army’s records show that this man was killed in an attack two years before. What really happened there in No Man’s Land during that awful retreat when he was wounded? Is this young officer suffering from shell shock or mentally unstable from the strain of war? He’s a long way from home, and Bess tries to find out just what the truth is.
*How is Rutledge doing?
He’s currently in production for next winter. RACING THE DEVIL starts in France where five English officers who survived the Great War have met in Paris to race each other to Nice. But something goes wrong, and a year later, tragedy appears to have followed them to England.
DEBS: Caroline and Charles will be stopping in to answer questions, and will be giving away a copy of THE SHATTERED TREE to a lucky commenter, so get your oar in!