I come from a family which has a dodgy Latin motto, silver cutlery with a crest and album upon album of faded photographs of stern people standing in front of an assortment of ugly houses. All these are accompanied by an inexhaustible supply of stories of the dark deeds and derring-do of my forebears. A rather similar background, by the sound of it, to that of author Annabel Venning.
To War with the Walkers is a well-named and well-constructed family history memoire, all about the real and metaphorical journey taken by six siblings through the Second World War.
After Major Tom’s War, my novel about my own family’s Great War, was published almost exactly a year ago, I remember a kind bookshop manager scratching his head and saying ‘Cracking read, but not sure where to put it.’ He could not decide whether it belonged within the memoire, historical fiction or military history sections. Publishers Hodder & Stoughton may experience similar frustrations with the sales positioning of To War with the Walkers.
Genealogy is now hugely popular, with millions of profiles and interlinked family trees posted on portals such as Ancestry.com. Hundreds and thousands of viewers tune in for every new episode of Who do You Think You Are? This new literary genre of high-quality genealogy fiction and novelistic memoire surely now merits its very own shelf.
To War with the Walkers (no relation, by the way) is non-fiction, if only just. At times its author cannot resist giving her characters rather more of a voice and personality than one might expect from a memoire: or perhaps that is because a run-of-the-mill family history memoire can often prove just a tad dull.
Not this one.
As her great-aunt Ruth lies within the crumbling rubble of the Blitz, stoically awaiting death, for example, the reader will also taste the dust and danger of her ruined hospital at the back of his throat.
The grand-daughter of one of her book’s key protagonists, Venning is completely within her rights to make it come alive for the reader however she chooses, and her work is all the better for it.
She has brought together a journalistic thoroughness combined with a deep personal sensitivity to her family’s many personalities, all set against different backdrops within the global theatre of war, 1939 – 1945.
As a genealogist I found myself flicking through the end matter on the hunt for a family tree (to check who was who) but by the last few pages could see why inserting one might have proved a spoiler for the poignant ending.
The parents of the six Walker siblings, Arthur and Dorothea, were both products of the Great War. When she attended Cheltenham Ladies College, Dorothea might well have been told not to hope for marriage, as there were insufficient supplies of surviving men to go round. The woman delivering that sobering lecture would have been one of the formidable spinster sisters Maud and Ethel (Etty) Winnington-Ingram, my own great-aunts, both of whom taught at Cheltenham during and after WWI (and who feature prominently in Major Tom’s War).
It was perfectly natural to desire as many children as possible post-war, ideally sons, to replace those who had been slaughtered. Dorothea and Arthur more than did their duty with four boys, Edward, Harold, Walter and Peter, and two girls, Ruth and Bea.
As Arthur and Dorothea had lived through the Great War, how hard it must have been to see cherished offspring being sucked into the toils of another conflict so soon, either directly, as soldiers (Edward, Walter and Peter) or indirectly (doctor Harold and nurse Ruth), while beautiful, languorous Bea finds herself a handsome American serviceman.
I know more about the First World War than I do about the Second for obvious reasons. I not only enjoyed To War with the Walkers but also learned a good deal, particularly from reading the chapters covering the three soldiers’ wars, which both horrified and fascinated me. I was shocked for example to discover that certain Sikh troops were lured into working with the Japanese with a false promise of Indian independence.
Venning’s grandfather, the ruthless and dapper Walter, who seems to have inspired admiration and hatred in equal measure, was exceptionally well drawn. His brother Peter’s descent into hell as he is transferred from camp to camp at the hands of the Japanese reminded me of the compelling David Bowie film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The family motto, Nil Desperandum, never despair, was never so apt as there.
Venning does not shrink from examining the mental health consequences of conflict, both in those who fight and those on the Home Front, male and female alike.
This is genealogy-based writing at its best and as an author of fiction – one step further on from family history memoire – I can hear a film script begging for release from this excellent book too.
Hodder & Stoughton, £20