Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Code Name Hélène

Code Name Hélène, Ariel Lawhon

This 2020 novel is the fiction-based-on-fact story of a real person, Nancy Wake Fiocca who was a spy and a fearless leader of the Maquis, the French Resistance during WWll. She was also known by the code names Hélène, Madame Andrée, Lucienne Carlier, The White Mouse.

Nancy Wake, New Zealand-born (1912), Australian-raised, the youngest of six children and a nurse, left home at an early age to seek out a life for herself. She came to France, needed a living, so enrolled in a secretarial course and upon completion was able to get herself hired as a freelance journalist by Hearst Corporation. Her stories were published but never with her byline – the common practice at the time being to publish articles by men, never women. Her journalistic career found her visiting Germany and Austria during the rise of the Nazi Party and she witnessed such brutality that it changed her forever. When war broke out and France was occupied, she was determined to do her part against Nazism.

Wake, an extremely determined young woman, was not inclined to take no for an answer and knew her own mind with a confidence that is admirable. She left behind the journalism career upon marrying her French husband, industrialist Henri Fiocca, moving to be with him in Marseille. By this time she spoke French expertly, well enough to pass for a native. In 1939 Henri left to go defend the Maginot Line, a string of concrete fortresses that the French Government guaranteed would protect France from a German onslaught. Nancy wasn’t far behind, bringing her own truck, converted to a make-shift ambulance to the same northeast part of France to help as much as she could in the war effort.

When eventually in May 1940, the Maginot Line was bypassed by the German army and France became occupied and divided, Nancy Wake headed home to Marseille and while waiting for her husband to return became involved in clandestine work, delivering fake id papers to people needing to escape. This work eventually led to a need for her own escape in a treacherous trek over the Pyrenees to Spain. From there she went to the UK where she was accepted and trained by the British Special Operation Executive who paraachuted her back into France to assist and train the Maquis, coordinate the ordering and delivery of much-needed supplies and to ensure that post-D-Day and other targets set by the Allies would be carried out on the pre-arranged schedule. Sadly, Henri Fiocca was killed by the Gestapo in 1943.

All of the work Nancy Wake did in France she did not only with supreme confidence in her own abilities but with a spiritied vivacity that won her compatriots' respect as leader of the Résistance. She stayed with them through D-Day in June 1944 as well as the landing of the Allied Forces in the south of France in August 1944.

I don’t usually give this much away about books I review but this story really grabbed me and stayed in my mind. The author, Ariel Lawhon, carried out a great deal of research, reading numerous biographies and even Nancy Wake’s autobiography to get the facts straight. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Lawhon confesses that she has bent some of the times and facts for the furtherance of the novel. I think we can forgive her! Nancy Wake’s story is expertly told. I couldn’t get my nose out of the book, but at the same time, some of the events were so graphic and intense, I often had to look away.

Ariel Lawhon leaves Nancy Wake's story at the end of the war but in fact, Wake remarried, recieved many accolades and honours throughout her life, had several more careers, including as an aspirational politician, wrote her autobiography and lived into her old age, dying in England in 2011. 

A surprising note: I ordered Code Name Hélene through the curbside service at my local library. Despite it being newly-published and only recently acquired, there were no other holds on it and last I checked, still no holds on this story of a remarkable accomplished and courageous woman. That's really surprising!

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Salt Path and The Wild Silence


The Salt Path and The Wild Silence, Raynor Winn

These two British-published non-fiction books by Raynor Winn are about her experience of becoming homeless in her (I’m guessing) 50’s along with her husband, Moth. Their adult children have left the farm and some sort of catastrophic financial deal involving a traitorous friend of the parents results in the foreclosure of their farm and the loss of most of their possessions in 2013. 

At the same time Moth is diagnosed with CBD, corticobasal degeneration, a rare neuro-degenerative disorder that shows up in loss of physical and mental ability: difficulty walking, short-term memory problems, difficulty controlling muscles of the face and mouth, and progressive difficulty speaking and comprehending. Doctors advise Moth that he appears to have had the disease for 6 years and that he has maybe 2 years left to live. They tell him to not over-exert himself or walk too far and to be careful on stairs. All this is a devastating diagnosis for a former active outdoor adventurer.

Ray and Moth are at their wits' end, trying to figure out what to do, homeless and nearly penniless. Their history together is one of outdoor activities, so they decide to walk. Specifically, they set their sight on the South West Coast Path, England’s longest way-marked footpath and a National Trail. The SWCP starts in Somerset, heads southwest through North Devon towards Cornwall, rounds the point at Land’s End and then heads east along the coast of Cornwall and South Devon ending at Poole Harbour in Dorset, 630 miles (1014 km) altogether, with a total elevation change of 114,931 ft. (35,031m). Unlike myself and many others on these long walks who overnight in country inns, pubs and B and B’s, Ray and Moth decide to wild camp, carrying their own tent, sleeping bags and cooking gear.

The experience of this walk makes up a large part of The Salt Path. The going is tough, especially at first when Moth can barely move his body to get up every morning. Ray is overcome with guilt. Has she asked too much of him?

Before long though, they get their second wind. They don’t push themselves too hard and take rests when necessary. Moth begins to feel stronger. By the time they finish the walk, many months later he has changed from a near-invalid to a man with energy and strength. His mind is clearer and the future seems a bit brighter for them both. So much for that medical advice! They are offered an old chapel to rent in Cornwall which they gratefully accept and Moth decides to go back to school to qualify as a teacher.

In The Wild Silence we learn that Ray’s first book, The Salt Path has been published and how it came to be. It is a wonderful surprise that this first book has hit a chord with people around the world. I was able to access The Salt Path by e-book on the Ontario Library Download Service and of course, I loved it. I recently purchased The Wild Silence as an e-book.

In The Wild Silence we struggle with Ray and Moth over Moth’s still-declining health and with their decision about how and where to live. Raynor Winn is a gifted writer whose descriptions colour every page.

The Wild Silence opens on the dawn of New Year’s Day:

All the revellers, fireworks and noise of the night before had disappeared. A dark stillness had returned, broken only by pools of streetlight and the sense of the river moving, wide and deep near its mouth, but heaving inland with the force of the tide, the surface shattering into a thousand reflected lights. Only one boat was moored in the fast-running current, its bows straining on the anchor chain, its stern drifting in a rhythmic fishtail motion.

A random person, Sam, who has read The Salt Path, feels inspired to look them up and offer them the opportunity to stay at a farm he owns but doesn’t occupy in Devon. Would they live there and help him achieve his dream of re-wilding the property and renewing the apple orchard with an eye to eventual cider-production?

Re-wilding is a term referring to letting land return to its natural state with help – the planting of native trees and plants, letting hedges and pastureland become rich with diverse plants and wildflowers and allowing grazing stock time-limited access in contained pastures, a strategy which provides needed fertilization and soil break-up without draining it of all its nutrients. The pastureland is then given plenty of recovery time before livestock is reintroduced. The plan, though controversial, is popular and successful in many areas of the UK and I’ve noticed Canadian farmers becoming interested.

Ray and Moth think at first that Sam’s offer might be too good to be true and are not sure they’re up for the job but, encouraged when Sam’s wife joins him in his enthusiasm for them to take on the project, they move to Devon. The work starts as they begin to clear out the house and barn and cut away the excess growth of years of neglect.

With Moth being more active again, his health improves somewhat and they decide to try another walk, shorter this time and they travel with friends they met on the SWCP to Iceland to walk the formidable Laugavegur Trail over a week or so, wild-camping along the way. The remainder of The Wild Silence takes us day-by-day on the Trail through the volcanic Icelandic landscape.



I could put my finger on any page in either book and it would land on the most exquisite descriptive language. Here’s a passage from the fourth day of their Icelandic walk:

The flat top of the escarpment was disconnected from the neighbouring mountain. A high cliff face of red chevrons of rock forced up by huge tectonic uplifts was separated from where we stood by a cavernous ravine where a river rolled and boiled far below. It was as if we stood on a column that had just risen from the earth. A white sea bird spread its wings and glided on the air currents above the river. As I watched it rise high on the wind across the cliff face, stark against the black and red rock, I realized it was the first bird I’d seen since passing a group of whimbrels near the coast while on the bus to the lava head in Landmannalaugar. I watched the fulmar glide in the distance, following the ravine and the river away to the south. All that was left was the roaring, wild silence of an empty land without vegetation or animal life. A heaving, crashing chasm of noise and movement, overlaid by a veneer of stillness.

And this early morning in Baldvinsskali:

I got up. In the darkness of the early hours I crept over the bodies, picked up a coat and went outside. The wind had dropped to a whisper and on the far eastern horizon a slither of pink wove between the dark grey gaps in the clouds, lighting the glacier tips in hints of faintest blue. The silence was total. The complete silence of an earth at its beginning. Or its end. Even in the warmth of a stranger’s parka, I felt this was no place for human or animal and that the world went on without either. The pink light spread through the grey, not time passing, just light changing.

I think Raynor Winn might be a painter as well as an author. I absolutely loved these two books although, sadly, there were no photos, at least not in the e-version. The above photos and maps were mined from the internet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fast Romantics - "JULIA"

Did you know that Fred Astaire is still around, dancing his heart out?

 This video isn't new but I wonder if you've ever seen it?