I love to write standalone stories. Maybe it’s because I have a very low boredom threshold, but I want to move on at the end of a book. I felt the same way when I finished The Chalky Sea, but then as the days went by, I kept thinking about Jim, one of my two main characters.
I’d left Jim in Sicily, entering battle for the first time in three years of being in the Canadian army, about to attack a village occupied by the Germans. Here’s where we left him:
As he ran, fear and doubt left him, replaced by anger and adrenaline. An image of Joan holding Jimmy in her arms swam in front of his eyes. Nothing’s going to stop me coming back for you, he said to himself and, rifle above his head, he ran down the hillside towards the village.
I’d deliberately left what happened to him during the rest of the war open. I don’t always like tying everything up too neatly. This ending was not a cliff hanger – instead I was leaving it to the reader to imagine the details and conclude whether he made it or not. The ending for Gwen was neater and the counterpoint between the two gave a good balance. But rather than start a new book with different characters I kept asking myself what did happen to JIm?
The same was true of Joan. She started out as “girl in pub” – a walk-on part, possibly even without a name. But she forced her way into a critical role in The Chalky Sea and now The Alien Corn is as much her story as Jim’s.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Alien Corn and rather than feeling constrained and bored by having the same characters, I felt liberated. One reason is possibly the very different setting – the farmlands of Southern Ontario and a little bit of my beloved Italy. And displacement has always been a core theme in all my books – always an emotional displacement – but often a physical, geographical one too.
Joan is very much displaced – taken from a small English garrison town, surrounded by family – and sent to an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere with a not always welcoming new family. And not even a local cinema as a distraction. Jim too is displaced. He has to readjust to life as a farmer, now as the man in charge, while struggling to come to terms with everything he went through during an often brutal and bloody campaign.
I have huge admiration for the thousands of British women who became war brides. They left behind all they knew, to follow the men they loved (but often barely knew) across the ocean and often to isolated spots with quite primitive living conditions. On top of that a number of the husbands suffered from undiagnosed psychological damage as a result of their war experiences. We recognise the impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nowadays, but then it was more a case of shutting up and getting on with it. Often the wives were on the receiving end of all this stress.
Some marriages didn’t last, Some brides returned to Britain – but only a tiny minority. The vast majority worked hard to sustain their marriages and adapt to unfamiliar and sometimes hostile living conditions. Perhaps having survived the war, nothing peace could throw at them seemed too hard? Or maybe, despite the, frequently, short time they had known their husbands, there was something about those life-and-death times that meant that relationships were much more intense and more was at stake?
In any event moving to another continent – often without the means of returning home – made them determined to give it their best shots.
Clare Flynn is the author of five historical novels and a collection of short stories. To receive a free e-book of her short story selection, A Fine Pair of Shoes, and keep up to date with special offers and news from Clare, sign up here.