Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl opens and closes with Rotheram’s story.
Raised by his German Lutheran mother, his Jewish father dies when he was young. He never quite fits in while growing up in Germany—he technically
is not Jewish since his mother is a Christian, but the Germans classify him as a Jew because of his father’s heritage. The ambiguity this causes
impacts the man he will eventually become.
1941, Rotheram, now in the British Army, is sent to Wales in the United Kingdom to interrogate Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Hess traveled to England near the beginning of the war and claims amnesia over the events that took place in Germany before that time
and denies any recollection of his part in the war. Rotheram is assigned the task of determining whether or not Hess
is competent to stand trial for war crimes. Rotheram and Hess are but a small part of the novel. They provide an anchor of sorts for the story of Karsten, Esther and Jim.
Esther is a seventeen-year-old barmaid, working at a local pub. The Welsh sit on one side of the bar while the British soldiers sit on the other,
testifying to an old animosity between the two groups, an ancient disdain for one another that has been carried down for generations. World War II is underway, and the soldiers are part of a construction detail. While at first the nature of their project is kept a secret, it soon becomes clear that it will be a camp for prisoners of the war.
Esther is so innocent. Her mother died when she was young, and she was raised by her father, a proud Welsh man who holds tightly to his roots. She is a farm girl, raised on a sheep farm,
but she is well read; her English is better than most in the town, but there is so much in the world she does not yet know. Her romance with a young British soldier goes horribly wrong, and she ends up suffering the consequences, her world irrevocably changed. She blames herself for things that she had little to no control over,
wrapping herself in her blame and guilt, closing out those around her, sure they will not understand. She keeps her secrets hidden, fearing what others will think.
It was common practice during wartime for the British to send their children to the countryside, in the hopes that they would be safer there, away from the bombings and fighting. Jim
is one such evacuee. Esther takes him in and tries her best to get close to him. However, Jim is angry and untrusting and not so easy to reach.
He is resourceful, though, and resilient. Despite being the butt of many jokes by the boys he calls friends, he never gives up trying to fit in and prove himself. Try as he might not to show he needs anyone, Jim craves the love and attention of a man. He once had that in Rhys, a local boy who
went off to war. Now Jim feels alone and lost.
Meanwhile, on the coast of France, Karsten, a corporal in the German Army, is trapped in a bunker with two of his fellow soldiers, one his superior and the other a young boy who lied about his age to fight in the war. Karsten is the only one who speaks English,
and at the insistence of his commanding officer, he surrenders to the British on the beach. He is now a prisoner of war.
Karsten saw much during his childhood. His mother raised him on her own after his father died at sea;
she ran an inn, and Karsten often would help her. He learned about the world and about people during his early years
and went off to war hoping to be like his father. He is thoughtful, a bit of an outsider, never quite fitting in with the others. Karsten feels guilty and ashamed for surrendering to the enemy,
and he is mocked for it by his fellow prisoners.
Esther, Jim and Karsten could not be more different, yet they are also very much alike. Each outcasts. Each with doubts and fears, struggling to survive as best they can. As their stories come together, the three characters find in each other a part of what they’ve been missing. There is a comfort in that, but also a great danger.
The The Welsh Girl is one of those books that sneaks up on you. It begins slowly as the author sets up the story
and introduces the characters, taking his time before bringing them together at the midway point. The Welsh Girl is a character-driven book,
Davies' characters are simple in some ways but complex in others. The Welsh countryside itself is a strong part of the story
- the culture, the conflict with the British, the history and strong roots of the land and people all build a strong foundation for the novel. It's interesting to read how the relationships between the different ethnic groups played out. That between the British and the Welsh oftentimes ran hot and cold. And it was similar with the Germans. And what of the Jew who kept his real heritage a secret from those around him?
The author did quite a bit of research for his novel, including investigating the history of prisoner-of-war camps both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. He offers a glimpse at how the Germans imprisoned felt, the strong sense of patriotism that remained and kept them going, the hope they shared, and the fears they would not speak about. Camp life was dull and repetitive. The confinement was stifling.
Rudolf Hess, the only character in the novel based on a real person, did in fact exist.
While the author took liberties in creating the story around him, his fate and the basic outline of his story are based in fact.
The Welsh Girl touches on several different themes, nationalism, loyalty, and the meaning of freedom among them. Each of the characters, including Rotheram, grows in the course of the novel, their experiences shaping them.
Well worth reading, Davies' novel offers much food for thought.