The past has lessons for the present

Staying In

Bríd Conroy

Historical fiction is a blend of two things I love, history and fiction. What’s not to like? At Tertulia, we interviewed two authors via Zoom on September 8 whose speciality is just that. Nikola Scott’s ‘The Orchard Girls’ is published by Headline Fiction, while Louise Fein’s ‘The Hidden Child’ is published by Head of Zeus. Both launched their new books last week.
‘The Orchard Girls’ tells the story of Violet during in wartime Britain in 1940, and Frankie, her granddaughter, in London in 2004.
Violet was a reluctant debutante when the full force of the Blitz in 1940 hit London, bringing tragedy into her life. She escapes to Somerset to join the Land Army, which provides female agricultural labour after all the male workers have gone to fight in the war. The story weaves us through two time frames, Violet in her wartime past and Violet in 2004, in early stage dementia.
Aware of the deterioration of her memory, she has started a shelter, almost like a bomb shelter, with all her past memories stored: “Soon her story would, little by little, cease to be inside a living, breathing person and would sit in cardboard boxes in the secret shelter beneath them.”
Her granddaughter Frankie has her own modern-day challenges to cope with, as well as taking care of her grandmother. In delving into the past to help her grandmother, she discovers hidden secrets that have overshadowed their lives. She also unfolds a time where women had been thrust suddenly into the world of men as the war took hold.
Scott told us how she set out to move past the romantic notion of the ‘Land Girls’ and to tell of ‘the prejudices they experienced in extreme circumstances during the war and how they taught each other how to stand up for each other and to show what women can do when asked and pushed to do so’.
Eighty years on, we are still hearing echoes of this in our world today, and Scott in her writing reminds us of the power of standing strong and working together.

Dangerous doctrine
‘The Hidden Child’ tells the story of Eleanor and Edward Hamilton, a married couple living in London in 1929. Edward is a celebrated war hero and Eleanor is a loving wife. However, Edward is a pioneer in the eugenics movement, promoting the practice of genetically improving the human race by ‘selectively’ breeding out hereditary defaults.
Eugenics can be traced back as far as 400 BC, when the practice was advocated by Plato. In contemporary times, Nazi Germany is most associated with the idea, yet not exclusively so.
Fein told us why she was drawn to the subject: “I wanted to explore and expose the eugenics movement that existed in the UK, for example it’s supporters, including Winston Churchill (Churchill was an honorary vice president of the British Eugenics Society). Also, my daughter developed a rare form of epilepsy and should she have been born a hundred years ago, the outcomes would have been a lot different for her.”
Fein’s story wakes us up the challenge of watching what narratives we can come to accept and normalise.
Both these books, though historical and fictional, force us to look at our preconceptions of others and how easily we can be strayed in our beliefs. Yet, it is even easier to stick together and look for what we share rather than what we don’t.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.