Love Hate Story
“There used to be tea rooms on almost every street in England.” An older friend was reminiscing about her youth and her parents’ generation. “Women needed something to do, and they knew how to bake, and to make proper tea.”
With bureaucratic cruelty, the post-war census labelled them “Surplus Women”. After almost ten percent of British men under the age of 45 died in World War I—the Great War—Britain was left with two million more women than men. In my friend’s family, none of the women of the previous generation had married. One of her aunts said that when they sent their husbands, sweethearts, brothers, and cousins off to fight, so few returned that girls were told only one in ten of them could expect to marry.
You can see this in almost every town and village in the UK. At the town center, or in a churchyard, or in a specially made park there is sure to be a poppy-decorated War Memorial dedicated to their men who didn’t return. In our own tiny village, which couldn’t have had forty households at the start of the war, there were sixteen men who didn’t come home. Meanwhile, the men who did return were often not only physically wounded and handicapped, but suffering the effects of the nightmare carnage that was trench warfare.
I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on, no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case of musterd gas – the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great musterd coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they will choke. —Nurse Vera Brittain, in her ‘Testament of Youth‘
I was thinking about that generation today, the ones Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation. And while that phrase usually evokes images of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frantic, edgy expatriate generation, it also includes a generation of women who had no choice but to carry on despite lost hopes and failed expectations.
Today I’m posting my review of author Roy M. Griffis’ epic World War I series, By the Hands of Men. Also, please come back tomorrow when Roy joins us to talk about his life and his writing.
By the Hands of Men, Book One: “The Old World”
Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald has managed to retain his sanity, his humanity, and his honor during the hell of WWI’s trench warfare. Charlotte Braninov fled the shifting storm of the impending Russian Revolution for the less-threatening world of field camp medicine, serving as a nurse in the most hopeless of fronts. Their friendship creates a sanctuary both could cling to in the most desperate of times. Historical fiction about life, loss, and love, By the Hands of Men explores the power that lies within each of us to harm – or to heal – all those we touch.
Book Title: The Old World (By the Hands of Men, Book1)
Author: Roy M. Griffis
Genre: Epic Historical Fiction
Length: 263 pages
Release Date: December 25, 2013
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By the Hands of Men, Book Two: “Into the Flames”
Charlotte Braninov, traumatized by loss and her service as a frontline nurse, returns to war-torn Russia to find her family. Captured by the Red Army, she exchanges one hell for another. Her still-loyal Lieutenant, Robert Fitzgerald, believing the woman he loves is dead, struggles to recover from the ravages of combat and typhus. In a desperate bid to rediscover himself, he commits to serve his country as a pawn in distant Shanghai. Forging their destinies in a world reeling after The Great War, Charlotte and Robert will learn anew the horror and the beauty the hands of men can create when they descend into the flames.
Book Title: Into the Flames (By the Hands of Men, Book 2)
Author: Roy M. Griffis
Genre: Epic Historical Fiction
Length: 440 pages
Release Date: November 14, 2015
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In my high school English class, our teacher screened Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, assuring us that we would love it because the leads were played by actual teenagers. And I tried, really I did, to get into the tale of star-crossed lovers. Only… not so much. Romeo seemed whiny. Juliet had a bit more backbone, but still didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t until several more versions of the story later that I realized the problem. Romeo and Juliet isn’t a love story—it’s a hate story. The events unfolded, the emo lovers angsted and died, all because of the hatred their parents didn’t hesitate to escalate to the level of open warfare.
In his brilliant epic depiction of the first World War, author Roy M. Griffis introduces us to another star-crossed pair whose love story is set against the backdrop of the hell on earth that is the Great War. Like all the best tropes, the Romeo and Juliet devices continue to be effective. Charlotte is a young teen, a Russian aristocrat whose family has disappeared into the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution. Educated in England, she volunteers as a nurse to the British Army and finds herself assisting at a field hospital in France. The son of an unpopular Irish duke, Robert Fitzgerald is suffering from prolonged assignment in the trenches, an ingrained sense of obligation to his men, and an inconveniently persistent code of honor.
War itself is the third main character, perhaps even the primary one. Neither Charlotte nor Robert can pretend that the hell around them is anything but manmade. She realizes that “…no one could look on that shattered land and feel confident in the sanity of man, nor the mercy of the Almighty.”
Charlotte remembers being taken as a child to view the Sistine Chapel in Rome. But in the war, she learns that while the hands of men can paint heaven, they can also create hell.
“She could not credit that something so wondrous had been made by the hands of men. As she worked and struggled to keep breath and life in the ruined men on the operating table, she was continually reminded how the hands of man could as easily make a hell on earth, even as she used the memory of the Chapel in Rome as a talisman to push away despair.”
As eighteen year old Charlotte—already an experienced nurse—heads to the front lines, she compares the nightmare landscape around her to a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. “Instead of bird-headed imps torturing the damned or winged monstrosities flaying sinners, she saw bloated corpses of horses and lorries blown inside-out scattered like broken toys along the way.”
When Charlotte and Robert meet, their conversation is a parody of flowery romantic love, with him calling her “My Lady” and Charlotte responding with “My Knight”—all as he holds down one of his men while she operates without anesthetic. While not precisely love at first sight, neither can forget the other even as the sweep of war separates them. From their alternating points of view, we see Charlotte and Robert develop from relatively shallow and inexperienced youths who pass through the crucible of war, honing each to self-confident strength.
Despite the rules and regulations of that most looming of parents, the British Army, the two fall in love. Of course, their relationship must be secret, but just as Juliet has her Nurse, they are aided by Matron, the hospital’s head nurse.
As their story proceeds, Robert and Charlotte are torn apart. Both believe the other dead or lost to them, and their star-crossed romance seems to end in heartbreak and loss.
In Book 2, their separate stories continue, but now the tropes are more aligned with what Gertrude Stein named the Lost Generation. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation… You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.” (Statement quoted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast (1964))
Alone in an alien world, both Robert and Charlotte struggle to find their identities. She decides to return to Russia to look for her family, while Robert breaks with his controlling father and returns to the only thing he knows, service to his country.
Although the Great War is officially over, Charlotte is back in Russia, where even the horror of her previous war hasn’t prepared her for the nightmare of pain and suffering that awaits a country in the throes of revolution. Taken captive, starved and abused, she struggles to stay alive, while despairing of escape. “The entire country was her prison.”
Meanwhile, believing her dead, Robert rejects his father and his heritage, and returns to serving his country, this time as a spy— part of the Great Game. As he heads to Shanghai to help uncover and block the spread of Soviet-style socialism, Robert begins finally to try gain perspective by studying history. The impulsive romantic of Book 1 is growing up.
The pace of these books is definitely more marathon than sprint. Apparently, there are two more volumes coming, with Book 3 due out next month. (You pretty much have to read them in order to understand what’s built each story arc.) The supporting characters are both well-rounded, plus they stimulate the character development of our two heroes. And that development is remarkable, as we see them react to the experience of love and of war. And it doesn’t hurt that the writing is terrific. Historical data seems exhaustively well-researched, and descriptions of the various settings are superb. There is even an ever-so-slightly formal tone that hints at Edwardian phrasing without dumping readers headfirst into a flowery Victorian word-vat.
My only complaints (and they are minor) are that while most of the characters are British, the spellings and quite a bit of the syntax are all-American. In addition, author Griffis is not above cliffhanger endings. There are several episodes that seem a bit superfluous, such as Charlotte’s interactions with the Jewish pawnbroker (like that’s not stereotype!) and his viciously bigoted aristocratic customer. It seems as if some scenes with minor characters have as their only purpose to hit us over the head with the racial, religious, or ethnic stereotypes that Charlotte and Robert have (presumably due to their purification in the fires of war) purged from their repertoire.
But as I debated how to rate these books, I looked back at my own criteria for five stars.
Author goes straight to my auto-buy list, books I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, books I would buy hard copies of and not lend out.
That pretty much nails my reaction to this fascinating series. I can’t wait for the next book!
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
[Please come back tomorrow for my interview with author Roy M. Griffis, plus excerpts from both of these books.]