A ‘Hood of One’s Own

Seventeen-year-old Esther Evans has lived her entire life within the edgy and remote borders of a mountain village in Wales. With the exception of movies, magazines and radio broadcasts, her closest contact with the outside world, the England her fiercely nationalistic father and many of the villagers hate, are youngsters brought in to get them away from the all-too-real dangers from air raids over London. Wales was then and to a significant degree still is bilingual, Welsh being a powerful presence. There are the workers as well, cheeky, hard-drinking Englishmen who are refurbishing an old campground, mysterious about its intended use once it is made habitable.

D-Day, June 6, 1944, has just past. Legions of American and English troops are debarking from the awkward-looking American landing craft, left to wade through the ebbing tide before advancing on the heavily fortified Normandy coast. Many of these English and Americans are stopped dead in their tracks by German soldiers who have been admonished to hold their ground.

This is the wartime setting and ambience of “The Welsh Girl”(Houghton Mifflin), a brooding and poignant first novel from the skilled short story writer Peter Ho Davies. As the title may suggest, Esther is a principal strand in a rich tapestry. About a quarter of the way into the narrative, Esther is walking to work at a local pub, accompanied by her sheepherder father, a lovely opportunity for the author to spoon out a significant and telling note of the novel’s main theme.

With her mother recently dead of cancer, Esther has had to run the house and help with the farming and the flock of sheep. “After her mother’s death, she’d started to nag him with all manner of questions about the flock,” Davies writes. “And then in the midst of all this information, which seemed so male to her, he told her about cynefin, the flock’s sense of place, of territory.

“She’d heard the word before, of course, but the importance of the concept had escaped her as a child. Now Arthur [her father] spelled it out. How it would be impossible to farm on the open mountain if the flock didn’t know its place. The sheep would scatter to the winds otherwise. It was why farms hereabouts were only ever sold along with their flocks.”

When she is not working at keeping the house for herself, her father, and a surly young evacuee, Esther pulls pints, draws and serves ale and beer at one of the two pubs in the village. Thought by earlier teachers to have a base of talent from which to draw a career as a teacher or governess, Esther’s command of English is seen as an asset by her employer at the pub. It is in fact one reason why she has begun surreptitiously seeing Colin, an English soldier who is about to be sent off to join the forces invading France. The pull of Colin and his growing urgency to secure from Esther an experience to remember and bond him to her is understandable. It is also an early demonstration of the theme inherent in the sense of cynefin; Esther imagines herself all too willing to follow Colin.

The mystery of the refurbishing of the campground is soon made clear. A group of German prisoners of war, some of whom we meet as they try to fend off the invading Americans and English, are billeted there. One in particular, a young corporal, Karsten Simmering, attracts Esther’s attention one night when she chases after the young English evacuee who lives with her and her father. The boy has joined a few of the village toughs, out to throw rocks and torment the German captives.

The third major element of texture in this dramatic crucible is Rotheram, born of German parents, one of whom was a Jew. We meet Rotheram first while he still lives in Germany, a wary, suspicious person who in no way identifies with the behavior directed against Jews but who nevertheless indulges the denial of wanting to live as and be that ideal of an educated, cosmopolitan, non-political German. Soon this becomes impossible and Rotheram is forced to England, where his skills with the language draw him into intelligence work.

Rotheram is soon posted to Wales, where it is his task to debrief the famed German defector, Rudolph Hess, using his experiences with interrogation and his facility with German to see whether Hess truly has gone around the bend of sanity or is shrewdly malingering. No fair to even hint at the answer, so I won’t but I can include that the moment where Hess compliments Rotheram on his English accent is a nice, ironic touch.

“It’s not a joke,” Hess said pleasantly. “I’m asking if Captain Rotheram” – he drew the name out – “is a German Jew.” This takes place in a small, controlled environment, but the question and the issue persist, one way or another. Toward novel’s end, Rotheram recalls a tense moment in the pub where Esther used to work. Dressed in his uniform, he sits at the bar, waiting, waiting to be served, only to be told: “We don’t have to serve your kind in here, you know.”

“What kind is that?”

The bartender spits. “English.”

Rotheram pauses. “English.”

“That’s right. We don’t serve no English here.”

A little ripple of pleasure works its way through the crowd as Rotheram considers the ridiculous pettiness of Welsh-English antipathy compared to the things he has seen preparatory to the Nuremberg war trials. “I am not English,” he says as he begins laughing at the absurdity of the moment, almost but not quite ready to announce that he is a Jew.

“What are you, then?”

“Would you believe German!”

By now Rotheram is too choked with laughter to carry things further. He leaves the pub, aware of the stern-eyed locals watching him.

“Of course, it occurred to him, catching his breath, that it was only funny because he wasn’t German – or English, or Welsh, for that matter. And for the first time…he felt free, as if he’d finally arrived somewhere, and even after he started the engine, he couldn’t imagine anywhere he’d rather be.”

All three principals, Esther, Rotheram, and the German prisoner of war, simmering, meet in the small Welsh village, where there seems to have been an eternity of sheep and a pervasive, ironic sense of cynefin. After they meet, each goes forth, mightily influenced by the others. Like a pleasing aftertaste, the payoff lingers, its implications coming to you long after, the toll of a sonorous bell marking the time in some remote place where the world, in spite of all its madness, still works.