We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet
I picked up an advance copy the novel We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet thinking I would be reading a simple book just to pass the time during a month of stress at the end of last year. What I got surprised me, as this book ended up being an absolutely riveting novel, one I found very moving and quite profound and heartbreaking.
“She was fast asleep on the backseat of the bus. Curled up, thumb in mouth. Four, maybe five yeas old.
I turned round. The last few passengers were shuffling away from me down the aisles to the doors. “Whose is this child?” I called.”
And the novel begins. In December 1940, Ellen Parr finds a small girl left on a bus in the village of Upton. The bus is full of evacuees who have come from Southampton. Everyone has disembarked and no one knows who the girl is. Ellen picks up the child and carries her to the town hall. When it is clear that there is no parent with this child Ellen and Selwyn take her to their home, where they are already giving shelter to three other evacuated children. Ellen discovers a label with the name Pamela Pickering sewn into the child’s clothing. Attempts are made to locate the parents, and it is discovered that the child’s mother was killed in the bombing and the whereabouts of her father is unknown.
Ellen Parr is now a lovely woman, but was once a girl who knew poverty and neglect. She has made a good life for herself, married to a man whom she loves and is loved in return. Children did not seem necessary. The evacuated children came but did not take root in Ellen’s heart as Pamela does. The love that grows between Ellen and Pamela is a wonderful thing and they are both made richer by it. They love each other, and need each other. Selwyn knows this is very likely to end in heartbreak but he cannot deny Ellen, and grows to love Pamela himself.
This is a novel rich in detail of time and place, wartime England and the years beyond. We learn about the earlier lives of both Ellen and Selwyn and come to understand the strength of their marriage. We meet Ellen’s childhood, and life long friend, Lucy. The other people in Ellen’s life are fully realized and we come to see Ellen as they do, as she sees herself, and as Pamela sees her. Pamela, with Ellen for the rest of the war, becomes the centre of her life – then and forever.
There were times I was reading through tears. We Must Be Brave is novel that I had expected to be simply another predictable wartime story but was so much more. This is a novel about caring friendship and loyalty, about love and marriage, about family. About loss, and about reconciliation, and if not peace, at least closure. It will be one of the best books you’ll read this year.