Sunday, November 26, 2023

Beyond That, the Sea by Laura Spence-Ash, an evacuation novel for adults

Title: Beyond That, the Sea
Author: Laura Spence-Ash
Narrator: Ell Potter
Publication: Macmillan Audio, 2023
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 20th century London, Greater Boston, Maine
Description: When Millie and Reggie Thompson make the difficult decision to send their eleven-year-old daughter as an evacuee to America to escape the Blitz, they could not have guessed she would be gone for five long years. Beatrix is given a home by a Boston family: warm-hearted Nancy Gregory, who had always longed for a daughter; her quiet husband Ethan, a math teacher at a private school where his father taught before him; complicated William, two years older than Bea; and exuberant Gerald, two years younger. Although Bea is shy and wary at first, she comes to love the Gregorys and embraces her new life, shopping for clothes with Nancy, going to Fenway Park, and best of all, summers in Maine on a small island. William and Gerald are destined for Harvard, and Bea also excels academically, but when she is 16, the war ends and it is time for her to return to London, where her readjustment is difficult. As Bea becomes an adult, she feels torn between two worlds and sometimes she feels the only way to cope with her life in London is to cut off contact with the Gregorys.

My Impression: I have always been fascinated by evacuation fiction and when this book was mentioned as a compelling coming of age story by the New York Times, I made a mental note, as many such books are for children or teens. It did not disappoint, with vivid and memorable characters. Told in flashbacks, from multiple perspectives, the author tells not only Bea’s story of growing up in two very different countries and being suspended between two worlds as an adult, but also how her experience as an evacuee changed her host family, as well as her own parents. I appreciated that it was partially set in Boston, although the specific location is not mentioned (I imagined Milton); Ethan, William, and Gerald all attend Harvard and Nancy attended Wellesley (boo, hiss).

Bea is acutely aware of the war, given she is being sent away from her own safety, but after Pearl Harbor, when America has entered the war and William signs up for an early morning shift to look for enemy aircraft, she insists on accompanying him, equally determined to contribute meaningfully to the war effort:
But she gets it now. It’s fear, made real. Before the declaration of war, it looms over everything, a heavy weight, a constant worry. But once your country is at war, it’s a concrete thing that bores its way in, that never leaves. There will be consequences. People you know and love will die. She’d heard her parents arguing the night before she left London. I don’t want her to grow up so fast, Dad said, I want her to be a child as long as she can. She rolled under her covers blocking her ears with her fists. I stopped being a child on the day war was declared, she wanted to scream. And you both disappeared even as you stayed by my side.
What makes this book so appealing is the relationships Bea develops with the Gregorys. Nancy is at times a little too hearty and personal for reserved Bea but Bea learns to love and appreciate her. Bea arrives with just a small suitcase of clothes but Nancy loves shopping for her. The Gregorys particularly enjoy sharing their love of Maine with their English guest. It is Ethan, the least enthusiastic about an evacuee and the least outgoing, who teaches Bea how to swim, and then she takes pride in being competitive with the boys. It is always William she strives to emulate while she basks in the uncomplicated appreciation of Gerald. And for a city girl, Bea takes effortlessly to rural Maine, spending all her time outside with the boys, wearing hand-me-down overalls, hiking through the woods, and learning to enjoy lobster.

As the children get older, their interactions become more complicated, and when Bea has to sail back to England, she struggles with relationships. Not only is her mother hostile to the very idea of her wanting to maintain ties with her other family but also Bea has to complete her education and seek a career in a country where academic inclination does not necessarily result in a university education, as it did for the Gregorys. It seems as if the only way Bea can cope is by forgetting the Gregorys but eventually she has to decide who she really wants to be.

Questions and beware - some spoilers: I recently voted for this book in the Goodreads Choice for best debut and best historical fiction but when I finished I still had a lot of questions, at least some of which I thought the author should have considered and answered. These would have changed my rating from a 4.5 to a 5.

Finances: Ethan was not unreasonably concerned at the expense of an evacuee, as the Gregorys were not as rich as the Thompsons assumed from Bea's letters home. However, the Gregorys lived in faculty-provided housing near the K-12 private school where Ethan taught, so I wondered what expenses they had other than food, clothing, and maintaining the summer home in Maine. Did the Gregorys have to pay for Bea’s school tuition? After Bea returns to England, Ethan convinces Nancy to sell her childhood home to pay for the boys’ college expenses, which seemed a pity. Also, how did Millie support herself after the war?

Columbia: I doubt William could have applied to Columbia without his father’s knowledge, given the need for teacher recommendations (and the teachers were his father’s friends and colleagues). Also, Harvard is harder to get into than Columbia, so if he got into Harvard, he almost certainly would been admitted to Columbia.

Religion: The Gregorys are Protestants and if William married a Catholic in 1951, he would have either converted (although he says he isn’t planning to), had a civil ceremony (plausible when the bride is pregnant but unlikely for someone whose brother is a priest) or what I think was most common in this era, married in the vestry, with William promising to bring the children up as Catholics. William says he will be married in a Catholic church. Being pregnant in 1951 would have been such a disgrace that perhaps the Church would been slightly more accommodating in order to get Rose married – but why wouldn’t her family have insisted she be married quickly (before her bridegroom could go on a European vacation!), rather than waiting until she is five months along and showing)? It also seems extremely unlikely that William would have been given a Catholic funeral unless he had converted, regardless of his wife’s wishes. As you can see, this really bothered me because it seemed so historically inaccurate.

Relationships: Would Bea really have had the opportunity for multiple sexual partners at 22 in 1951 (it’s not wartime anymore!) while living with her mother? This would have hurt her career as a kindergarten teacher had anyone known.  And wouldn’t William have been disgraced for getting a girl pregnant in this era? Especially a girl from a different class and religion? Would Rose’s family forgive him?

I suppose the author might say that she chose to tell the story through short vignettes from multiple characters so she did not have to focus on the questions that bothered me; however, she provides so much detail and much of her research is impeccable, so it is reasonable to wonder. Surely it is a sign of a good book that I can’t stop thinking about it!
Source: Library. This is my twenty-sixth book for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Intrepid Reader.


Cath said...

I think this sounds absolutely wonderful. I'm setting myself various personal challenges (rather than doing loads of official ones) next year and one of them is to read more books that involve the two world wars. I've had a sort 'world war' November and have enjoyed it so much I want to continue on. At the moment I'm reading A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford, about a Norwood Nanny during WW2, and I think it might be a book you would like, although the writing's a bit ordinary. Off to stick Beyond That, The Sea onto my 2024 possible reads shelf on Goodreads.

Hope all's well in your world? We're doing ok, youngest daughter has had her spinal surgery and is recovering well and P and I are both fine.

TracyK said...

This sounds like an interesting story and I like books with multiple points of view. Evacuation of children during the war is a topic I am interested in and being sent all the way to the US would be even more interesting. I will put this book on a list to look out for. The fact that you had so many questions about it does concern me, but some of them would not have occurred to me. Very thoughtful review.

CLM said...

I think you both would enjoy this book. At one point, as an adult, the heroine is introduced to another former evacuee and is somewhat surprised that his experience was so different from hers. He had been sent off to boarding school in New Hampshire but again I wondered who paid for fee-paid school. Surely not the government? I will have to read up on this.

Between March and September 1940, 1,532 children were evacuated to Canada, 577 to Australia; 353 to South Africa, 202 to New Zealand, 838 to the US. The best known book about US evacuees is Back Home by Michelle Magourian but that book, as I recall, is about the girl's difficulty fitting in when she goes home and is meant for teens. This book includes much more about her experience while in America and is meant for adults. Both are very good.

CLM said...

Cath, my library actually owns the Spoonful of Sugar book in print and as an audiobook so I will request it in December when I am a bit more caught up.

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

This sounds great. I love stories about war guests (do they call it that in America? That's the term we used in Canada) so am eager to track this one down!

CLM said...

I think the Kit Pearson trilogy was called the War Guests, right? I liked that but this is better because you find out what happened to them afterward! I think you would enjoy it.

thecuecard said...

I'm glad you reviewed this one. I remember seeing it when it came out and being curious about it ... and I like historical fiction. It has a good premise! An 11-old-girl goes to Boston to avoid the Blitz. But it must be tough for the host family to give her up when the war's over. Gracious I hope the ending isn't too sad.

JoAnn said...

I heard about this on a podcast when it was first released and have been curious about it ever since. Now it's on my library list... thanks for a great review!

Marg said...

This sounds really interesting.

Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.