I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. It was ‘recent history’ for me as a child, and the Sunday afternoon movie on TV was often about the conflict which ended just 12 years before I was born. My love of history led to me studying the war at A level, and I again found myself delving into the political, military and personal aspects of conflict which are always so intricately entwined.
More recently, I came across the story of the renowned correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, which led me to reading the book ‘The Women Who Wrote the War’ by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. I was fascinated by the stories of these brave women, and thought that writing a novel from the perspective of a female correspondent would be a really interesting angle. (You can find my previous article on women war correspondents here.)
In No Job for a Woman, the first novel in my new series, Jenny McLeod is a fictional character whose experiences are not too dissimilar to those of the small number of very determined women who went to the frontline to report the Second World War. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to overcome the arrogance and feeling of entitlement shown by their male counterparts like Ernest Hemingway, while battling a great deal of prejudice from the military who didn’t want women on the battle field. The British, in particular, didn’t want women there at all and wouldn’t give accreditation to female journalists until towards the end of the war. I have taken a little artistic license here as my correspondent, Jenny, becomes involved with the Desert Rats at a much earlier date.
Being a reporter becomes her identity for Jenny, it is all she knows how to do, all she feels comfortable doing. After the end of the war, she still feels the need to let the world know what is happening in conflict zones which is why she continues reporting in 1945 and beyond, from the independence struggles of Israel and India, to the Korean War.
But the books in this series are not just a list of battles, they are a family saga spanning decades. And Jenny finds that she must fight harder than a man just to be treated as an equal. With personal as well as military battles to be fought there was really only one choice of title for my new series – The Wars of Jenny McLeod.
During the Second World War a number of women reporters covered, and even broke, some of the most important stories of the conflict. These women not only showed extraordinary courage in the face of fire, but also had to face many challenges just to be able to report from the frontline. At that time, journalism was a male dominated profession, and there was a feeling of arrogance and entitlement from many of the male correspondents, such as Ernest Hemingway, as well as a great deal of prejudice from the military who most definitely did not want women on the battlefield.
The women who chose to report from an active war zone had to overcome the ban on females on the frontline which was in place at the beginning of the war. In fact, the British army refused to give accreditation to women journalists until towards the end of the war, arguing that women, as the weaker sex, should not be put into dangerous situations. There was also a worry that women might cause ‘sexual unrest’ amongst the soldiers, or cause men on active duty to behave in a chivalrous way by looking after the women rather than concentrating on fighting the enemy. Bizarrely, one of the main arguments was that women could not report from the front because they couldn’t use the same latrines as the men!
When America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the authorities there proved to be much more open to women correspondents and allowed women closer to the action than the British did, although they were still reluctant to have them on the frontline. Some British women took advantage of this and got themselves accredited to an American newspaper to enable them to go to active war zones. Once there, they would find any loopholes they could, or find officers sympathetic to their point of view to help them; they were willing to do almost anything to get closer to the frontline.
The response to female war correspondents was mixed. Male journalists often felt the women had an advantage because they could use their ‘feminine wiles’ to flirt with officers and men to get a story which might be unavailable to themselves. The soldiers on the ground, however, enjoyed having the women there, often keen to have a journalist with them who would be able to tell their story if they were killed in action. They also liked having the women around because they were starved of female company – many did not see wives or girlfriends for long years on end during the conflict. For their part, the attitude of the women correspondents towards the fighting men was mixed, some had affairs with soldiers whilst others had a more ‘motherly relationship’ with the troops they met.
A number of women, reporting from all theatres of the war, became household names. Amongst them were…
Englishwoman, Clare Hollingworth, had only been a journalist for a week when she was sent to Poland in 1939 to monitor the border and report any troop activity. Within days, she got two exclusive scoops. First of all, at the end of August, she crossed illegally into Germany where she saw nine panzer divisions hidden away awaiting the order to attack. On her return to Poland, Hollingworth heard planes and tanks on 1st September and was therefore the first to report both the likely and the actual start of the invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War Two. (You can find out more about Clare Hollingworth in my article here).
Lee Miller was a very different person. She began her career as a model for Vogue in the 1920’s before becoming a photographer herself, and she was in London at the start of the Blitz in 1940. Feeling that the fashion world was too superficial at such a time in history she went out into the streets and began to take photographs documenting the terrible devastation caused by the bombings. Miller was fascinated by the juxtaposition of horror and beauty that she saw in the changing shape of the city, and felt that this was what she wanted to do with her life. As time went by she began to write the stories to accompany her photographs, and by 1942 was an accredited war correspondent for Vogue which printed her war stories alongside their fashion sections. Miller photographed women at war – from nurses and charity workers to WRENS – as well as reporting from the front line. She was caught up in the fighting in St Malo, France, during its liberation in August 1944, where she described the ‘sordid destruction’ of the once beautiful town, and wrote of the awfulness of being in contact with dead bodies. Miller went on to cover the re-taking of the continent, from the Liberation of Paris to the push through Germany and the horror of the concentration camps. The articles she wrote and the accompanying photographs were both powerful and haunting.
Another famous correspondent was Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Ernest Hemingway. Women were forbidden to go to France with the troops for the D Day landings, but Gellhorn desperately wanted to be there, so she stowed away in a hospital ship and landed on Omaha Beach where she helped medical teams to rescue wounded soldiers. She was later stripped of her correspondent’s badge over this incident.
Not all of the women who reported from dangerous situations were on the physical frontline. Sigrid Schultz was born in Chicago, with German and Norwegian parents. She was Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune in Berlin before the war and saw it as her duty to keep the world informed about how Hitler and his Nazis were changing Germany. Schultz had to tread a very fine line between telling the truth and her own personal safety; she even suffered death threats for her reporting in the American press. Schultz’s courage was truly remarkable as she knew how dangerous it would be for her if the Germans found out that her mother was a Jew.
Female reporters often appeared more subjective in their reporting than the men, trying to give a deeper feeling for time and place in their descriptions of the conflict. They offered a different perspective to the usual military accounts, often writing their reports from the point of view of the soldiers rather than the officers who were the usual sources of information, trying to focus on the individual rather than divisions or brigades. The women were sometimes criticised for this, but felt that their more emotional response was an integral part of the story which would enable readers back home to share more fully in what it was like to be on the frontline with troops, what it was that their men-folk were experiencing so far from home.
But, no matter their style of writing, all correspondents had to report in a way that helped to keep up British morale and so were unable to report some stories and experiences, sometimes the censorship was official but often it was self-censorship as they tried to get the difficult balance between accurate reporting yet hiding some of the more unpleasant aspects of life and death on the frontline. It was not until after the war, when they could write a memoir without any censorship, that many of these women were finally able to talk more openly about what they had seen and experienced.
As has been seen, it was not easy for women to get a job as a war correspondent as they had to overcome many difficulties and prejudices, yet some still felt drawn to this line of work. What drove them was a desire to be treated as equals, to show that they were capable of coping with the same difficult conditions as the men, be that in the deserts of North Africa and jungles of the Far East or the freezing temperatures of the winter war in Finland. They also had a desire to be involved in major world events. Many of the women spoke of having a real sense of purpose, of living in the moment which was not available to them in civilian life. This feeling of being part of something important which gave meaning to their own lives made it difficult for the women who reported the war to adapt back to civilian life at the end of the conflict – just as it was for the soldiers themselves. There was a cost in all of this for the correspondents; many suffered what is now known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which not a diagnosed condition in the 1940’s). Later in life, Lee Miller said that she never got over what she had seen and photographed in Dachau.
The Second World War was an historic period which marked a turning point for women reporting from warzones. For some, reporting from the front was all there was for them, a feeling of home and belonging which meant that some, like Clare Hollingworth, continued to report from war zones after the end of the Second World War. As war now rages in Europe once more, we daily see on our TV screens a new generation of women reporting from the front line, who stand on the shoulders of those who went before. Experienced correspondents such as Lyse Doucet, Orla Guerin, Yalda Hakim, and Sarah Rainsford are reporting from Ukraine alongside new young women, at least one of whom has paid the ultimate price for bringing the news to us.
Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, died on 14th March 2022 while serving as a consultant for Fox News during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She was killed alongside Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski when their vehicle was struck by incoming fire. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott paid tribute to the young woman, saying “Sasha was just 24 years old and was serving as a consultant for us in Ukraine. She was helping our crews navigate Kyiv and the surrounding area while gathering information and speaking to sources. She was incredibly talented and spent weeks working directly with our entire team there, operating around the clock to make sure the world knew what was happening in her country. Several of our correspondents and producers spent long days with her reporting the news and got to know her personally, describing her as hard-working, funny, kind and brave. Her dream was to connect people around the world and tell their stories and she fulfilled that through her journalism.”
Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, like so many other women before her, showed true courage in reporting major conflicts to the world.
‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’ Warsaw, 1940. The Jewish ghetto is under the Nazis’ brutal control. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children slowly starve within the walls. But while all around is darkness, one man brings hope, caring for the ever-increasing number of destitute orphans in the face of unimaginable conditions. And, torn apart as the noose tightens around the ghetto, how will one young couple’s love survive the terrible tests of wartime? Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.
Some of the best historical novels are based on true stories, and this is one of them. I knew the facts about Janusz Korczak and have admired both his teaching and his actions, but what I knew was the bare bones. Ms Gifford has conducted intensive research over a number of years to bring Korczak to life for me, and introduce me to other people I knew nothing about. A huge number of the characters in The Good Doctor were real people whose stories told here will touch the heart, a reminder of what is best about humanity; often exhibited in the worst of times.
This novel is well-plotted as it charts the falling fortunes of the Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas, from wealthy families to inhabitants of an ever-shrinking ghetto. The sights and sounds and smells of their experiences put the reader squarely in this terrible story of hatred, fear and death. The descriptions of starving children, of shootings, round-up’s, and trains to the death camps cannot fail to move you. The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is a window into the darkest soul of man, and as such a reminder of what we can become if we allow ourselves to build our lives on discrimination and hatred.
But the novel is also full of hope as we follow the true stories of Janusz Korczak, Sophia and Misha as they try to provide the love and security so essential to the children in Korczak’s orphanage. These real people were prepared to put their lives on the line for others, as were many non-Jews who could not allow themselves to be a part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Following these characters through the clearing of the ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not easy reading, but it is a book which should be read as both a lesson from the past and a guide for a better future.
Above all The Good Doctor should be read as a memorial to all those who stood up for what was right in the face of so much wrong.
Eighty years ago, the last ever British cavalry charge took place just outside the town of Toungoo. Toungoo is an important crossroads city midway between Rangoon and Mandalay in Myanmar (known as Burma during the Second World War). In 1940, the British Royal Air Force built an airfield to the north of Toungoo, and for six months from late 1941 to early 1942, this was used as a support base and training facility for the Flying Tigers (the 1st American Volunteer Group). After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Japanese invaded Burma in an effort to push out the British, seize the natural resources of the country, and try to open a back door route into India. Toungoo was on their main route, and it was vital for British success that this position should be held.
The city was defended by the Chinese 200th Division, who were allies of the British. Also in the area was an element of cavalry with the British Frontier Force, a unit popular with the less well-off Indian Army cavalry officers. The unit was made up of 100 Burmese conscripts from the Pyawbwe Reserver Battalion, which was normally stationed near their home town in the centre of Burma. They were led by Indian Sikh officers under the command of Captain Arthur Sandeman, who had been seconded to the BFF from the Central India Horse.
On 18th March 1942, Sandeman’s unit were conducting reconnaissance in the area when he saw some Asian soldiers building a fortification on a nearby hill. He knew that the Chinese were busy setting up their defences around Toungoo and so initially took little notice of this group. Unfortunately, they were part of the Japanese 55th Division, and immediately opened fire on the cavalry with their machine-guns. Sandeman was out in the open and many of his men were killed in this initial attack. As they were out in the open, with no cover, there appeared to be only one course of action available to him – he ordered the bugler to sound the ‘charge’, drew his sabre, and led the remainder of his men in a direct attack on the gun emplacements. The horses had no chance against machine guns, and every one of Sandeman’s men died before reaching the Japanese lines. Sandeman died with them, sabre in hand.
The Battle of Toungoo began in earnest a few days later with almost constant bombing raids by the Japanese. The Chinese put up a heroic defence, with slow and brutal fighting house-by-house, but were eventually forced to withdraw.
Horses continued to be used by the British to transport supplies during the Burma campaign, and in other theatres of war, but never again took part in an action against the enemy. Sandeman had led what was the last cavalry charge by British forces during a war.
Captain Arthur Sandeman is remembered in the Royal Memorial Chapel at Sandhurst. His name also appears on the Rangoon Memorial, along with the names of the men who died with him. The Memorial stands in the centre of the largest war cemetery in Myanmar. It is surrounded by the graves of more than 6,000 men, the names of many more are carved on the memorial itself.
1939 – 1945
HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF TWENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND
SOLDIERS OF MANY RACES UNITED IN SERVICE TO THE BRITISH CROWN
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN BURMA AND ASSAM BUT TO WHOM THE
FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE CUSTOMARY RITES ACCORDED
TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH
Also engraved on the rotunda in English, Burmese, Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi is the additional inscription
THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN
You can find out more about cavalry during the Second World War here
London 1788. The calm order of Queen Charlotte’s court is shattered by screams. The King of England is going mad. Left alone with thirteen children and with the country at war, Charlotte has to fight to hold her husband’s throne. It is a time of unrest and revolutions but most of all Charlotte fears the King himself, someone she can no longer love or trust. She has lost her marriage to madness and there is nothing she can do except continue to do her royal duty. Her six daughters are desperate to escape their palace asylum. Their only chance lies in a good marriage, but no prince wants the daughter of a madman. They are forced to take love wherever they can find it, with devastating consequences. The moving true story of George III’s madness and the women whose lives it destroyed.
Most people know something about ‘Mad King George’, and about his son the Prince Regent. Much less is known about the lives of his wife and daughters. Throughout history the position and role of women has not been considered as important, and they play a secondary role to men. This is even more the case when it comes to royalty; a daughter is a political bargaining chip, a wife is there to provide an heir. For the women in the life of George III there was the added complication of his madness.
Queen of Bedlam sheds light onto the lives of the women who lived in the shadow of madness yet had to present a façade of normality to the public. Theirs was a life of pain and suffering, of having to lead their lives treading on eggshells as they feared the king’s reaction to everything they said and did. For George’s daughters, their hopes and dreams centred on the chance to marry and have children, to find love and, in so doing, escape from the control of their mother who was afraid to face her husband’s madness alone.
Ms Purcell has obviously conducted intensive research into this subject and is able to give a touch of humanity to these characters who have been for so long in the shadows. Throughout the novel we begin to relate to some believable, but not necessarily likeable, women – like all of us there is good and bad in all of them, yet being forced to live lives so different from the norm made then quite emotionally insecure and stunted in a way which many might find difficult to understand or sympathise with.
Queen of Bedlam is a well-plotted novel, constructed with a real feel for time and place, which brings into focus life in the court with Ms Purcell’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of claustrophobic live in a royal gilded cage. At the heart of the story is a group of women who struggle to find a balance between duty and love, and it is refreshing to discover this much hidden aspect of the years leading up to the Regency with it’s focus on the women who had little control over their lives, with disastrous consequences for some of them.
For those of you who enjoy Recency romances, this book will give an interesting perspective to a period of history which you may already feel you know well.
War is not only about the men on the battlefield, it also has a profound effect on people at home. It is always important to use resources wisely, so during the Second World War civilian populations were not able to have many of the luxuries they were used to. In America the government restricted the use of iron, copper, and brass, which meant that a number of companies had to change their focus. Steinway & Sons, for example, were no longer allowed to build pianos; instead they produced coffins, as well as parts for troop transport gliders. The situation only changed when Steinway was given permission to make specially designed pianos for the troops.
Towards the end of 1941 the War Production Board asked Steinway & Sons to make heavy-duty pianos for the military. Theodore Steinway, the company president, knew that music had the potential to boost troop morale and was happy to oblige, particularly as he had four sons serving in the military. The new pianos needed to be rugged and durable enough to stand up to conditions in the field, and to be safely dropped by parachute in a crate from a B-17. They also needed to be able to survive in a variety of different environments, from deserts to jungles, and everything in between.
The first prototype instruments were ready in June 1942. As the use of materials was restricted the ‘Victory Verticals’, as the pianos were called, were built without the legs found on most upright pianos; the manufacturers used water-resistant glue and anti-insect treatments on the wood; the keys were covered with celluloid instead of ivory; the base strings used iron instead of copper binding. By clever design the instruments used only one tenth of the metal used in a conventional piano. Weighing 455 pounds, and with four handles included in the design, the Victory Vertical could be carried by four men. Each piano came with its own set of tuning tools, spare parts, instructions, and a variety of sheet music from light classics and hymns to sing-along tunes and boogi-woogie. The pianos were painted in a variety of colours – olive green, blue, and grey.
About 2,500 of these pianos were sent to every theatre of war, including Europe, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. They were incredibly popular with everyone, from a special service unit in Alaska to a dance band in the Philippines; and famous performers such as Yehudi Menuhin and Bob Hope (who took part in tours to entertain the troops) loved them. Another 2,500 of these pianos were produced for approved essential users such as religious organisations, schools and hotels.
It is hard to quantify how important music was for troops stationed so far from home. In May 1943, Private Kranes wrote to his mother from North Africa… “Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna [sic]. Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s. It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing. I slept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang.” Private Kranes was killed by tank fire one week later.
The Victory Verticals continued to be used by the US military after the end of the Second World War, including in the mess of the nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Thomas A. Edison!; this piano was in use until the submarine was decommissioned in 1983. However, not all of the pianos survived the post-war years so well. Three Victory Verticals were still in use in the Philippines in 1950 and were describes as being constantly out of tune, waterlogged, with sticky keys (and quite a few missing!), squeaky pedals, and looking very much the worse for wear.
Yet those pianos had served their purpose. For men far from home in stressful situations and often in fear for their lives the Victory Verticals and the music they provided lifted the spirits and bolstered camaraderie. For men who were perhaps away from home for the first time in their lives, Steinway brought a little slice of home to them.
In 1940, Helene, young, naive, and recently married, waves goodbye to her husband, who has enlisted in the British army. Her home, Guernsey, is soon invaded by the Germans, leaving her exposed to the hardships of occupation. Forty years later, her daughter, Roz, begins a search for the truth about her father, and stumbles into the secret history of her mother’s life.
Written with emotional acuity and passionate intensity, Island Song speaks of the moral complexities of war-time allegiances, the psychological toll of living with the enemy and the messy reality of human relationships in a tightly knit community. As Roz discovers, truth is hard to pin down, and so are the rights and wrongs of those struggling to survive in the most difficult of circumstances.
Ms Bunting has created an interesting blend of the past and present which shines a light on just how difficult it was for the residents of the Channel Islands to live under German occupation, the only part of the British Isles to fall into German hands. Roz’s search for the truth about her father is interwoven with the search for art treasure plundered by the Nazi’s, therefore creating a mystery to be unravelled at the same time as a quest for identity.
The author has clearly researched life on the islands during the Second World War – the hunger and fear, the plight of the Russian deportees sent to work on the island’s defences, the feeling of isolation. Alongside this the reader is reminded that nothing is ever black and white, especially not in wartime. Some women had relationships with the occupiers – maybe because they were truly in love, maybe to receive extra rations, maybe to save a loved one from deportation – but whatever the reason they were all vilified at the end of the war. Island Song brings this dichotomy clearly into the light; when reading the experiences of Helene, Roz’s mother, it is easy to see that people often had few choices, that they made the best they could out of a very difficult situation, and the ramifications of those experiences coloured and shaped the rest of their lives. It was not only those who fought the enemy face to face who had to deal with trauma and psychological problems as they moved from war to peace.
The descriptions of the island of Guernsey in Island Song are fascinating, giving the reader a real feeling of the place and its central role in the lives of the islanders. The sounds and scents of the island are brought to life and become a counter-point for the pain and hardship of occupation. Alongside this we meet a German whose background and motivations are not made clear until the final chapter of the book, leading the reader to questions their own views and prejudices of ‘the enemy’, who may well be just another person doing their best to survive.
Is you enjoy historical fiction rooted in fact, or an unconventional love story, then you will probably enjoy Island Song.
As well as being a time of terrible destruction, wars are also a time of rapid innovation. An example of this occurred on 13th January 1942.
The ejector seat is designed to enable a pilot or aircrew to exit a plane in an emergency – an explosive charge propels the seat out of the aircraft, and the pilot with it. Everyone knows about ejector seats and how they work, but do you know how long they have been in use?
The first attempt to create an ‘assisted escape’ for a pilot happened as early as 1910 when Everard Calthrop, who also invented an early version of the parachute, patented a bungee-assisted seat which used compressed air to eject the pilot, but not his seat. The first design with a detachable seat was invented in the late 1920’s by Romanian Anastase Dragomir. It was first tested successfully at Paris-Orly airport on 25th August 1929.
But none of these systems was in use by the military at the beginning of the Second World War, and the pilot’s only means of escape was to jump clear of a plane (bail out). Sometimes this was difficult because the pilot was injured, or the escape route wasn’t clear; and with the advent of the jet engine the g-forces were too great for a bail out. Clearly a better way of escape from an incapacitated aircraft was needed.
Heinkel and SAAB both worked independently on the project, using compressed air to eject the seat and pilot. The first system was used in a prototype jet-engined fighter – the Heinkel He 280 – in 1940, but it was not actually used in action until 1942. On 13th January of that year a German test pilot, Helmut Schenk, found the controls of his plane had iced up and were inoperable. He was flying a He 280 which was being used to test new jets for the Fieseler Fi 103, so the original jets had been removed and his He 280 was towed aloft during a heavy snow storm. When Schenk realised at 2,400m that he had no control over the aircraft, he made history when he jettisoned the towline and pressed the ejection button.
After Schenk’s emergency use of the system the first operational ejector seats were installed into the Heinkel He 219 Uhn night fighter later that same year. The system was crude, with the seat sliding along rails as it was ejected, but it worked. The innovation saved the lives of many German pilots; at the same time, the pilots of Allied jet planes were either unable to exit the plane or were likely to be killed while trying to escape. By 1944 bizarre reports were being received by the British Air Ministry of sightings of the pilots of German jets being fired into the sky as their planes crashed. It was the capture and investigation of seats from crashed Heinkels which led the Allies to develop their own ejector seats.
1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.
1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…
Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.
I was fascinated to read the author’s notes at the end of this novel. At First Light is based quite closely on real events which took place as the Klu Klux Klan moved into Florida’s Key West during the early twentieth century, and as such it makes for an absorbing read.
Ms Lafaye has conducted intensive research not only into the specific events which are the basis of her novel, but also into the Klan. It’s methods of recruitment would be called radicalisation today, preying on the weak and vulnerable and promising a better life if only they joined this group. The contrast between some almost comical aspects of the clan and their murderous brutality are chilling, as are the descriptions of the hatred and bigotry which allowed such a movement to take a hold.
At First Light also encompasses the introduction of prohibition and the smuggling of liquor which followed, as well as the Spanish flu which took so many lives at the end of the First World War. The story is however also one of friendship, a ‘coming-of-age’ tale, and a depiction of life in the Keys which is full of depth and detail in which the reader can almost smell the odours, feel the heat, and come to know the characters who lived there at the time. But, at its heart, At First Light is a story of love; a story of two people who, for whatever reasons, chose to stand together in the face of hatred and violence; a timeless story which will touch the heart.
Well-plotted and paced, clearly written with believable characters, I heartily recommend At First Light for its accurate portrayal of a time and place in the past which should be remembered if we are not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.
On 30th November 2021 France honoured the US-born 20th Century singer and activist Josephine Baker with a place in the Pantheon, the memorial to France’s national heroes, the first black woman to receive such an honour. So, who was Josephine Baker, and why is she such a hero to the French?
Josephine McDonald, the daughter of Carrie McDonald, was born in St Louis on 3rd June 1906. Her official biography states that her father was a vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson, but it’s believed that she was actually the daughter of a member of a wealthy German family whom her mother was working for at the time. Carrie and Eddie often took Josephine onto the stage with them during their act but, unfortunately, their stage careers weren’t a success and the couple eventually split up.
Josephine grew up in a poor part of St Louis where she helped with the family finances by doing laundry, waiting on tables and babysitting; when she couldn’t find work she would dance in the streets collecting money from passers-by. By the age of 13, Josephine had left home and was touring with a vaudeville troupe, the Jones Family Band and Dixie Steppers, before joining the first African-American musical, Shuffle Along. In the show she was placed on the end of the chorus-line but drew attention to herself by exaggerating the dance routines in a comical way and soon became popular with audiences, the start of an illustrious career.
Josephine married four times over the years. Her first marriage was to Willie Wells when she was just 13 years old; the marriage was very short-lived. She married for a second time in 1921, to Willie Baker. This marriage didn’t last long either, but she kept Willie’s surname for the rest of her life as it was her name when she first became famous.
In 1925 Josephine travelled to Paris where she took part in a new show, La Revue Negre’ (The Negro Review). Her ‘Danse sauvage’ where she worn nothing but a feather skirt was seen as wild, sensual and charismatic, and she became an overnight sensation, becoming a symbol of the jazz age. She then moved on to perform at the Folies Bergère with her iconic costume – a skirt of artificial bananas and very little else. Although her audience was predominantly white Josephine’s performances followed African themes and styles. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her third marriage, to French industrialist Jean Lion. Her pet cheetah, Chiquita, often appeared on stage with her – it wasn’t uncommon for the animal to leap into the orchestra pit and terrify the musicians!
Josephine became the most successful American entertainer working in France – a level of success she could never have achieved in racially divided America. She was earning more than any other entertainer in Europe and was introduced to the elite of the time – Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein amongst others.
In 1927 Giuseppe Abantino became Josephine’s manager and lover. In the same year she took etiquette and singing lessons and embarked on a world tour. By the time Josephine returned to Paris she had re-invented herself and set the foundations for an enduring career. Yet despite her popularity in Europe Josephine received mixed reviews in America, often with racial undertones. TIME magazine said “Josephine Baker is a St. Louis washer-woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris… In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has had a headstart… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris.” An unhappy Josephine returned to France.
When France declared war on Germany in September 1939 Josephine was recruited by French Military Intelligence – the Deuxieme Bureau – to collect information about troop movements etc. from German officials she met at parties in ministries and embassies. Josephine’s undercover work was successful because of her fame which allowed her to mix with everyone from Italian bureaucrats to Japanese officials. When Germany finally invaded France Josephine left Paris for her home, Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne, where she helped the Free French arrange visas to escape the country; Josephine also used her work as an entertainer to travel around Europe visiting neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal. She smuggled intelligence about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations to the Spanish resistance written in invisible ink in her sheet music, from there it was sent on to England. She also carried notes pinned to her underwear, hoping that her celebrity status meant she wouldn’t be searched. As well as her work with the Resistance Josephine was a member of the Free French Forces and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she also served in the Red Cros, and performed for troops in North Africa and the Middle East. After the war Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by de Gaulle. She was also awarded the Rosette of the Resistance.
Josephine had divorced Lion in 1940, she married for the fourth and last time in 1947, to conductor Jo Bouillon. This was a period in which she re-invented herself as a more serious singer, returning to the Folies Bergères in 1949. In 1951 she returned to perform in the US, initially a very successful run in which she refused to perform to segregated audiences and was named NAACP’s ‘Woman of the Year’. But her stance against discrimination and segregation ruffled too many feathers. Josephine was accused of being a communist, her work visa was cancelled, and she returned to France from where she continued to champion the American Civil Rights Movement.
Josephine returned to perform in the US where she continued to refuse to play to segregated audiences; her work for the Civil Rights Movement led to her being invited to speak at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Dressed in her Free French uniform and wearing her medals Josephine described how a segregated America was so different from France – “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
After Martin Luther King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Josephine and asked if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine saw this as a great honour but eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
In an effort to show that all people can live together in harmony if they are not brought up with ideas of discrimination Josephine adopted 12 babies from countries all around the world; she called them her ‘rainbow tribe’, part of what she described as her ‘experiment in brotherhood’. She continued to fight racial injustices for the rest of her life.
On 8th April 1975 Baker starred in a revue marking 50 years in show business, the audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later Josephine was found in a coma in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with their rave reviews – she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She died later that day, aged 68.
Like so many people, the war years were only a small part of Josephine’s life, yet her actions during that time showed a courage which and dedication to her adopted country which means that she has always been a popular figure. That popularity, and the gratitude of the people of France, has now been recognised by an honour given to only a few.
You can see a short BBC video about Josephine here