The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
Last Christmas In Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb is a unique story. A word of warning, it is not a “sugar and spice and everything nice” novel. The story is very authentic as it covers the triumphs and tribulations that affected the civilian life and those on the battlefield. Yet, it leaves the reader with a good feeling as the book ends with a sentiment of hope. The love and romantic scenes are a great balance against the horrors of the Great War.
What makes this book stand out is that the story of World War I is told predominantly in letters and telegrams. The primary letter authors are Evie, Alice, Will, and Thomas. The latter three tell of the tragedies of war: Alice an ambulance driver, Will and Thomas on the front lines, while Evie, represents the civilian population. She if filled with worry, dread, depression, and fear for her loved ones. The writings also show how the attitudes changed through the course of the war. In the beginning the letters are full of excitement, a sense of adventure, pride and thoughts that the war won't last long, yet, as it becomes evident that it will not be over by Christmas, the correspondence becomes more serious and speaks of the atrocities and hardships. Because Evie was not content to sit idly she writes a newspaper column about the war effort and the feelings of those left behind, as well as those fighting on the frontlines.
Gaynor describes her as “ambitious, spunky, unconventional, and strong-willed. She had no intention to just marry someone, but wanted to play a pivotal role in the War. This is why we had her write a newspaper column like the famous American journalist Nellie Bly. WWI was the event that changed roles for women. She was trying to find her voice and was talking to the female readers, much like a wartime Dear Abby.”
Through the letters between Evie and Alice readers learn how the women took over the male-dominated jobs from delivering the mail, to driving ambulances, being a part of the Auxillary Corps, and even writing newspaper articles.
Webb noted, “There is a scene in the book where Thomas, Evie’s best friend who she is in love with, writes that she should not come to the frontlines. He says, ‘I don’t want you here amid the gloom and gore. It isn’t the place for someone like you and won’t be good for you.’ Of course she responds, ‘Your letter disappoints me. That you believe a woman has no place in this war…Do all men believe that women are incapable? Must I return to the knitting of comforts and bide my time like a good girl?’ We intentionally had her sign it as Evelyn, not Evie. She was furious with Tom with an attitude, ‘no sweet pet names for you, butthole.’ We also wanted to show that when not communicating directly and only in writing there can be misunderstandings. The reason he was so upset and angry with her had nothing to do with her being a woman. But, rather everything to do with her safety.”
But the exchanges also spoke of the horrific issues of the war. PTSD was either called shell shock or war neurosis and the men diagnosed were considered weak-minded. A powerful quote explains how many thought of these men as faking or frauds. “They walk on both legs without the use of crutches. They swing both arms by their sides. They have no need for facemasks to hide their injuries. These men suffer an entirely different way. They suffer in their minds. The horrors they have seen and the endless sounds they have endured night after night stay with them.”
But the war also penetrated those on the home front. The Scarborough raid by the Germans seemed to be a practice run for the blitzkrieg done in WWII. The Germans killed seventeen innocent civilians including women and children with ninety minutes of shelling.
Today snail mail is almost a forgotten form of communication, but if not for it people would not get a grasp of earlier historical events. This story shows how the letter writing was an emotional form of communication between the characters, showing the culture of the times, the romantic relationship, and how the characters used the letters as a release mechanism. But they mostly showed how letters and the written word are so very powerful.
More than anything this novel is a reminder that not everyone has complete joy during the Christmas holiday, that there are those who have lost loved ones, with war affecting every aspect of someone’s life, including on Christmas where some families have chairs left empty. Readers see World War I through the eyes of these four characters and exhibit the same emotions of enthusiasm, denial, despair, and eventually love. It is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of victory and loss during World War I.