At the famous 1914 Christmas truce in World War I, British soldier Hal Montgomery meets a German soldier named Wilhelm. Before the war, Wilhelm had lived for a time in England and became engaged to an English schoolteacher. Now, because of the war, he has been unable to get in contact with her and so he gives Hal his picture and asks him to find a way to let her know that he’s okay and that he still loves her. Hal agrees. Mackenzie Ford’s novel, Gifts of War, tells what happens when Hal and Sam, Wilhelm’s fiancée, finally meet. Hal is immediately smitten and decides that he must be part of Sam’s life, and he does everything he can to make her happy.
I loved the idea behind the romance in this novel. The contrast between the forbidden affair across enemy lines and the more steady, dependable love right at home makes for great romantic fiction. There are questions of what kind of love is more real, more substantial. The problem is that I couldn’t ever bring myself to root for Hal because right from the start the romance with Sam is built on deception. Sam herself is completely forthright; she makes clear how she feels about Wilhelm and why she gets involved with Hal. Hal, on the other hand, is deceptive right from the get go. Yes, he’s a great provider; yes, he’s fiercely loyal to Sam; yes, he’s completely patient with her and lets her make up her own mind. Only he doesn’t really give her the freedom to choose because he doesn’t tell her about his encounter with Wilhelm.
So I was not a big fan of Hal as a potential love, but I was intrigued by his quandary, and I wanted to know how Sam would respond to the truth. I didn’t necessarily want Hal to get kicked to the curb, but I wanted there to be some sort of consequence. I wanted Sam to be able to choose with her eyes wide open. Whom she would choose was less important than seeing her make the choice between the romantic forbidden lover and the generally honorable and always devoted man who made one serious error early on. And (Spoilers ahoy!) here’s where I get infuriated: Sam never gets to make that choice. What’s more, I get the impression that we’re supposed to see Hal’s final decisions on her behalf to be a grand romantic gesture, instead of an act that renders Sam powerless to control her own destiny. Up until the last few pages of the book, I was hoping things would turn around because if they had, I would have ended up liking (but not loving) this book, but the last two pages took all hope of a more satisfying conclusion away.
It’s a shame that the central romance is such a problem because there’s so much more about this book that makes for great reading. Mackenzie Ford is apparently a noted historian writing under a nom de plume here, and the book is packed with historical detail. Hal’s work with the British intelligence was fascinating. I’ve not read much about military intelligence, so I loved learning about how the intelligence workers scoured German newspapers to see if they could discover any patterns that might reveal something significant to the war effort. At times, Hal seemed a little too much of the boy wonder in this area, but that still didn’t take away from the work. I also enjoyed reading about Hal’s sister, Isobel, who worked as a nurse in a unit that specialized in blood transfusion, which was being widely used for the first time. Ford also explores how the war affected morality and social expectations as an entire generation watched almost all of its men and some of its women go off to war, never to return.
The novel does has some structural and narrative problems that I’m inclined to chalk up to inexperience with fiction writing. Ford has a habit of not revealing the whole of a conversation until certain facts become important. So, for example, Hal might all of a sudden know about his sister’s relationship with a man in her unit. It turns out that he found out during a conversation with his father that was actually described in detail 20 pages earlier, although that crucial piece of news was omitted. This happened several times, and it made the book feel unpolished. There are also a few too many characters; Sam’s sisters and their men, for example, were impossible to keep straight. They just kept coming and going, and only one of them made any sort of impression. These problems, however, didn’t keep me from enjoying the story and the history. It’s the ending that was the fatal flaw.