Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea

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Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.

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War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe.  The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice.  But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.

Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German.  Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.

When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond.  These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal.  But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything.  And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.

The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love.  They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous.  In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army.  When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window.  Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals.  Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.

The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.

Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language.  I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots.  The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.

And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles.  The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition.  In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them.  Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.

Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.

While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past.  But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same.  We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values.  And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become.  For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.

Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.

 

Jersey Festival of Words: Myth, Legend and Historical Fiction

On Friday, I spend the morning legging it between my hotel and the Opera House, collecting signed books for the 10yo from the children’s authors he’s picked out of the programme. My favourite is Jim Smith (apologies to the others) purely because he draws every kid who has a book signed, in the style of Barry Loser. He does the 10yo from a photo on my phone.

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I make it into the auditorium in the afternoon to see Erren Michaels talk about the local legends she writes about in her short story collection, Jersey Legends. She jokes about having only an hour and 800 years’ worth of legends to cover.

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She tells us she became interested in the myths and legends of the island when she wanted to include some in a novel she was writing. She was surprised how many existed that she’d never heard of before. She thinks some were lost because of the change from the oral tradition to writing and the change in language on the island from Jèrriais to English.

During her research, she discovered that Jersey is rumoured to be the last refuge of the fairy population and this is a myth unique to the island.

A lot of the stories Erren brought to the page were from footnotes and fragments, rather than already existing stories, which meant she had to invent the story to go with them. She talks about how this fits into the fairy tale tradition, quoting Marina Warner on how fairytales don’t remain fixed stories. They have different roots in different parts of the world and they change over time and the form in which they’re told.

The White Lady, for example, is a staple of Jersey’s folklore but sometimes she appears as a ghost and others as a fairy queen. The Legend of the Black Dog, which is one of the island’s best known legends – there’s a pub named after it! – has become a violent creature in recent times but it began life as a benevolent spirit, a storm herald. She calls her own version of the legend, ‘a bit of a shaggy dog story’ as she attempted to incorporate the different versions of the legend. She shows us a map which has had all the places which have a black dog legend mapped on to it: the UK is covered with them and it expands into parts of Europe too.

Michaels is also an actress and she shows us part of the spoof television show, Hit or Myth? she co-wrote and performed in. (You can watch it on the link, it is entertaining and if you haven’t been to Jersey you’ll see a little of the island.)

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The Vioge is Erren’s favourite monster. The demon scarecrow came from a paragraph in an old academic book and has no mythological archetype. The same applies to the Crooked Fairy who she sees as the kind of monster who lives under the bed.

The tales are concentrated on the north shore of the island, she thinks, because there’s a cliff and they serve as a warning. Telling a child there’s a monster is often more effective than telling them not to go to the edge.

She shows us footage of The Venus Pool aka The Well of Death which has two legends attached to it. The first is that it’s the fairy’s bathing pool and if they caught you looking you would be struck blind; the second is that there was a siren-like prince and princess who drew ships onto the rocks. If there were any survivors, the prince would hold a fake court and sentence them to death. Corpses would be put into The Well of Death.

Erren ends by telling us about two more legends – The Water Horse, who was a sea kelpie, which is unusual as versions that exist in other places are fresh water. Because there were lots of versions of this tale, it made it difficult to write one coherent story. And the shipwreck of La Josephine which happened in 1865 or 1866. The figurehead of the devil was washed up into a cave. There’s no proper story to go with the figurehead or its position nd this used to annoy Erren as a child, so she created a story for her book.

She tells us there’s a second book on the way, this one containing the ghost stories of the island and that she hopes her work gives people access to the legends.

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On Sunday morning, at my penultimate event, I see another local writer, Caroline Lea, discussing her novel When the Sky Fell Apart and Jersey during the occupation. She’s part of a panel with local historian, Ian Ronayne, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink.

Caroline tells us that she’s interested in the silences in historical accounts of the occupation and the different experiences people had. When she started writing the novel, the voices of the characters came first. She made copious notes, from which the plot emerged.

She worried about the local reception as she had fictionalised a subject which was in living memory. She made the commander far more vicious than the one present on Jersey at the time and worried about causing offence to relatives of those whose stories she used and changed. She comments on the possible tensions between creating a book to be read and enjoyed and respecting life events.

The panel discuss collaboration, ‘whatever that dirty little word means’, says Caroline. She says it’s difficult. People seen to be collaborators were quite often ostracised but she sees it through a lens of what parents will do for their children and that there’s a conflict with the moral boundaries of the 21st Century where it’s easy to look back from and judge. She says it’s a rich field for exploration, fascinating and complex. There’s a discussion between the panel as to how the punishment of collaborators by men immediately after the end of the war was to do with men’s feelings of impotency. They refer to ‘the battleground of women’s bodies’.

Caroline also links this to ‘the gossip machine’ which she says is fascinating under occupation. It creates a hierarchy: who’s taking a stand? Who’s using gossip and sly letters to settle old grudges?

She says she writes historical fiction because it’s where her writing voice seems to sit most comfortably. She likes the feeling of settling into a world where you know the framework and the boundaries. She quotes Kate Atkinson, ‘History has these silences within it’, before telling us that her next novel is set in 17th Century Iceland. There’s safety in historical distance, she says.

She ends by discussing the character of the English doctor in her novel When the Sky Fell Apart. She says he presented problems initially. Because he’s reserved and emotionally restrained there was a danger that readers would think he didn’t experience emotions. But he has the biggest moral dilemma. He’s ‘totally isolated in this place of total isolation’. She refers again to ‘the silences that have to happen during occupation’. In the first draft, all the voices were in first person. This didn’t work for the doctor because she couldn’t show the lies he tells himself. She did a complete rewrite in third person which opened up his character, creating a distance between the internal and external portrayal of him. She says her editor ‘asked the right questions’ about the doctor’s background which allowed her to make him more sympathetic. There’s a fine line between the space to ask questions in order to get to know a character and explaining too much.

 

 

When the Sky Fell Apart – Caroline Lea

When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. Like the stink when Claudine had once tried to burn Maman’s old wool blankets because they had itched.

Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks.

When the Sky Fell Apart begins as the Second World War reaches Jersey. First come the bombers and then comes the occupation. It’s told through the eyes of four characters: ten-year-old, Claudine; Edith, a herbalist; Dr. Carter, an English doctor who remains on the island, and Maurice, a fisherman.

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Claudine is clever in a family suspicious of intelligence. Her father goes to fight in the war while her mother struggles to survive, never mind look after her children. Claudine, according to Edith is ‘thin-faced, sallow and ill-kempt. Wild, knotted hair and a torn boys’ trousers and a boys’ shirt – grubby around the collar’. Claudine befriends a German soldier, a move that leads her into a terrible situation.

When Clement Hacquoil, the butcher, burns on the beach, Edith arrives to help. She sends for the doctor but it’s one of her ‘legendary’ potions which revives him. The locals seem to be torn between those who are thankful for her concoctions and those who call her a witch and believe she has ‘the devil’s magic in her fingers’. Edith was widowed in the First World War and has lived alone since. She’s the straight-talking main character and provides an insight into other characters as an astute reader of people.

Dr. Carter is one of the people who comes to rely on Edith, seeing her as a support to his work, not a hindrance. Carter’s the character with a dark secret from the outset. When the bombs begin to fall and a large number of women and children arrive at the hospital looking for sanctuary, he faces them

He held up his hands and quelled the first quiver of fear in his gut by reminding himself of the sensation of the ruler slapping down on his palms if his hands had ever trembled as a boy.

The sacrifices Carter makes throughout the war take an incredible toil on him. His story is a particularly fascinating element of the novel.

Finally, Maurice. He’s stayed to care for his wife, Marthe. She has the degenerative disease Huntingdon’s Chorea and Maurice feels he can’t leave her with anyone else after he discovers her carer has been going out and leaving her alone for hours and because he fears the Germans finding her and sending her to a concentration camp.

But he knew he must stop the fishing when he came home and she’d spilled a pan of boiling water down her legs. She was rubbing at them – perhaps she had thought that might take the pain. But her skin was peeling off in her hands where the hot water had blistered it. Translucent pairings of flesh, like white petals, which she threw to the floor, while underneath, her blood – so much blood.

As the novel progresses, all four characters’ lives will become entwined and they’ll need each other if they have any hope of survival.

When the Sky Fell Apart is an engaging look at the occupation of Jersey. Lea considers the way the locals are treated and what they do to survive – from stealing and hiding to becoming ‘Jerry Bags’ to working for the Germans. All of the characters’ stories have dark elements to them although Lea’s style and tone prevents the novel from being the bleak piece it could easily have been. My only criticism is that Edith is often referred to as ‘old’ when she must be all of fifty. However, without giving anything away, there’s a glimpse of a much more youthful version of her as the story progresses. Over all, When the Sky Fell Apart is a good read and if, like me, you know little about the German occupation of Jersey, an interesting introduction to it.

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Caroline Lea appears with Simon Scarrow at Jersey Arts Centre at 11.45am, Sunday 2nd October, 2016. Tickets are available here.