Chris Cleve received critical acclaim with the publication of Little Bee in early 2009. He followed up with Incendiary in 2010 and Gold in 2012. Cleve receives high marks from readers and reviewers for “rendering female characters with starling realism” (NPR). I read Little Bee and thoroughly disliked it, so I did not bother with Incendiary or Gold. In 2016, Everyone Brave is Forgiven appeared to high acclaim. Because I kept reading about the story, I decided to give the book a try. I put my name on the wait list at the library and waited. Since the book has received so much praise, it is still in high demand. When the book became available, as so often is the case, about six books I had requested all came available at the same time. I let Everyone Brave is Forgiven go and read the other books, so I had to go back on the wait-list.
The first week of January, Everyone Brave is Forgiven became available to me again. This time, I checked the book out and read it. The back story is that Cleve had a long conversation with his grandfather about the grandfather’s role in WWII. Cleve’s grandfather was assigned to watch over Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s son, during WWII. Cleve’s grandfather went on to describe meeting Cleve’s grandmother and talked about their romance. These stories intrigued Cleve, so he started writing Everyone Brave is Forgiven. In reality, he combined stories from both sets of grandparents and added his own touches to the fiction.
Mary North is eighteen years old when Britain declares war on Germany. She comes from a privileged and wealthy family and is in finishing school when the war begins. She immediately leaves school unfinished, as she says. She is eager to sign up for the war effort and thinks she would make a terrific spy. Imagine her surprise when she receives her assignment as a teacher. Mary decides to make the best of the assignment, however. She reports to Miss Vine to receive her assignment. Miss Vine views Mary as trouble and reluctantly assigns her a class.
The children are being evacuated to the country, so Mary is supposed to go with her young charges and continue teaching them in the country. Miss Vine, however, thinks Mary is too liberal with the children and tries too hard to be their friend instead of the stern teacher Miss Vine thinks the children should have. As the teachers and children are gathered to catch the train to the country, Miss Vine tells Mary that her services are no longer wanted; she is released from duty. Mary is stricken because she has learned all the children’s names! She is especially fond of Zachary, a young black American boy whose father is a musician in a minstrel show in London. Zachary is bright, but he acts out in class. Later, Mary determines he is “word blind,” probably what experts will later call dyslexia. At any rate, before Miss Vine dismisses Mary, Zachary runs away into the empty zoo which has already been evacuated of its animals, an act that Mary finds horrifying that the animals have been evacuated ahead of the children.
Mary brings Zachary back to the fold, but she has promised him that she will look after him while they are in the country. Then Miss Vine dismisses Mary, so she cannot keep her promise and is heartbroken to think that Zachary will believe she is like all the others who torment and tease him. Mary writes to Zachary once the children are settled and he writes back to her. This friendship is important to the story because soon Zachary’s father goes to the country and brings Zachary back to London because the boy’s letters are so heartbreaking as he tells of the teasing and torment he endures from the other children because of his skin color.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven Is complex and rich in plot. Mary decides she will not let Miss Vine win, so Mary goes to Tom Shaw, who is in charge of school for children who have been left in London or returned from the country. Zachary falls in to this category, and Mary persuades Zachary’s father to allow the boy to return to school with her. The school is small and the students are challenged in various ways. Mary works hard to teach them and has made sure to choose a classroom near the basement stairs so she can take the children there if an air raid occurs. She does befriend the children and on Friday afternoons, she allows them a little time to make collages, to play music on a gramophone, or to dance if they choose.
Readers can see that Mary quickly falls in love with Tom. He, too, is smitten by Mary. They soon become lovers with Mary visiting Tom in the garret apartment he has shared with his friend Alistair Heath, who has joined the army. Tom writes to Alistair and tells him about Mary. After some time, Alistair receives leave and returns to London to have dinner with Tom and Mary; Mary brings her best friend Hilda along to be Alistair’s date. Sparks fly between Alistair and Mary upon their first meeting, but they are both loyal to Tom, so nothing happens between them, but Alistair is not very kind to Hilda since she is not the girl he wants. When Alistair meets Tom, Mary, and Hilda in the restaurant, he first assumes Mary to be his date: “The other woman was a knockout, a redhead with peppy green eyes and a reckless, puckish stamp” (140). Then he learns of his mistake. He also says of Mary, “She held his eye nicely and without flirtation, and yet he felt that an acknowledgment was passing between them” (140.
The story moves between Tom, Mary, and Hilda in London and Alistair and his buddies in the trenches of war. Mary has organized the Christmas story with her students portraying the manager scene and at least one parent for each child arrives to see the play on a Friday afternoon. During the performance, the Germans begin bombing near the school. Everyone moves to the basement and the play continues. However, so does the bombing. Zachary becomes extremely fearful and runs up the stairs and out into the street. Both Mary and Tom rush after him. Mary persuades Tom that she should be the one to go after Zachary, so Tom remains behind.
Several streets away, Mary catches up with Zachary and they return to the school. Sadly, the school is no longer there. No one in the building survived even though they were in the basement.
Some weeks later, Mary begins corresponding with Alistair; she tells him she is keeping the garret apartment he has shared with Tom and that Alistair’s few clothes are still there. They begin a steady correspondence, as steady as one can during war time. With Tom’s untimely death, Mary and Alistair are free to explore the spark between them, though neither would have acted as long as Tom lived.
The war continues and life is difficult for both Alistair and Mary. The story has much more depth than explored here. Zachary continues to play an important part in Mary’s life as does Hilda. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is worth reading. I did find the dialogue a bit too cute at times, breezy might be the better word to describe it. Still, the story is compelling.