Largely set in Liverpool and its countryside, The Lost English Girl travels back and forth through the years 1935 to 1945, showing how those on the ground managed Germany’s attack on their soil. I had read about the evacuation of children in London during World War II but didn’t fully appreciate the emotional cost to families—how the children fared being far from their parents, not knowing what was happening back home, and how their parents dealt with the separation, not knowing how their children were managing where they were sent. When there has been so much written about World War II (both fiction and non-fiction), it’s easy to lose sight of those who are not actively fighting for freedom.
Julia Kelly, the author of The Lost English Girl, deftly shows the impact of Britain’s evacuation of the vulnerable during the war. Operation Pied Piper, as it was called, relocated 1.5 million people; the majority were children. Kelly illustrates in emotional detail how one mother and her child dealt with the pain of being separated during wartime. After a brief fling with Joshua Levinson, a Jewish musician, Viv Byrne, a young Catholic woman, finds herself pregnant. Though only eighteen like Viv, Joshua, an honourable man, says, “Marry me.” Relieved, Viv agrees. Though lust brought them to this moment, it’s not clear whether they love one another and yet, these are the days when an illegitimate birth could mark not only the woman but also her child for life—especially in a deeply religious Catholic community.
But shortly after the wedding ceremony—which is where the novel begins—Viv’s parents, who are staunch Catholics and anti-Semitic, offer him a way out that’s difficult for him to refuse. The family drama that unfolds for all parties—Viv, her sister and parents, Joshua, his sister and parents—kept me reading into the wee hours of the night. Besides the family dynamics on display, the author successfully weaves in how religious differences, betrayal, society’s pressure, and a rash decision driven by lust can drastically alter the course of one’s life.
The other significant players in this story are the priest, who assists in the evacuation and placement of four-year-old Maggie, Viv’s daughter, and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, the childless couple, who are thrilled to have her. There are several chapters written in Maggie’s voice, and we learn how she deals with her mother’s absence in the Thompsons’ luxurious country house, a far cry from the home her mother can provide.
A few times I was moved to tears, so at the end, when I read the author’s acknowledgements, I was surprised to learn that the author hadn’t had a child of her own. But no matter, as Kelly hits the right emotional buttons every step of the way in her novel. Her writing shows she understands the emptiness a mother feels when separated from her child for long stretches of time.
Joshua’s struggles to accept responsibility for his child is also at the core of this story. The decision he made at eighteen haunts him everywhere he goes. When his hopes of becoming a successful musician are dashed, and Britain declares war on Germany, he soothes his guilty conscience by joining the Royal Air Force. Like Viv, he also has his own unresolved issues with his family.
With the continued bombing of Britain—not only in the cities, but also the countryside—what Viv feared happens and she loses contact with her daughter. Though unforgiving of Joshua for letting her down on her wedding day, Viv relents and takes his help to find out whether their lost girl is alive or dead.
The Lost English Girl, a heartwarming novel, is not just a portrayal of a mother separated from her child during wartime, it’s also a fine portrayal of how a family, deeply affected by their beliefs and what others might think, can lose sight of what’s important. This is an old story played out in countless countries across the world, in and out of wartime.
About the Author
- Publisher : Gallery Books; Canadian Export edition ( Simon & Schuster, March 7 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1668020688
- ISBN-13 : 978-1668020685
Diana Stevan likes to joke she’s a Jill of all trades as she’s worked as a family therapist, teacher, librarian, model, actress and sports reporter for CBC television. She’s the author of five novels and a novelette.
Her novels cross genres: A Cry from the Deep, a romantic mystery/adventure; The Rubber Fence, women’s fiction; and Lukia’s Family Saga series, historical/biographical fiction. Based on her Ukrainian grandmother's family’s life in Russia and in Canada, the series is a trilogy covering the years 1915-1943: Sunflowers Under Fire, Lilacs in the Dust Bowl, and Paper Roses on Stony Mountain.
When Diana isn’t writing, she loves to garden, travel, and read. With their two daughters grown, she lives with her husband Robert on Vancouver Island and West Vancouver, British Columbia.