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The author Beem Weeks has recently posted my commentary on my novel ‘Heronfield‘. I thought you might like to read it here: Heronfield – by Dorinda Balchin
Tony Kemshall is a young man excited by the prospect of adventure when war is declared in 1939. When the German war machine invades France in early 1940, Tony goes to St Nazaire to be with his French grandmother until things become settled. As the British Expeditionary Force retreats Tony puts his grandmother on board ship for England, then sets out to seek action and adventure. But the realities of war are very different to his earlier romantic notions, and as Tony gets caught up in the retreat to Dunkirk he develops a deep hatred of the Germans. After experiencing stuka attacks on civilians and the evacuation of the beaches he determines to fight to avenge the deaths he has seen.
Tony speaks fluent French which, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the St Nazaire area, makes him an ideal recruit for the Special Operations Executive who are looking for people to fight behind enemy lines. The SOE ask him to work for them, to be a spy, and he readily agrees. The problem is, the life of a spy is secret, and he can tell no-one about his work. Tony’s father constantly compares him with his brother David, a fighter pilot and hero of the Battle of Britain, and can only see Tony’s cover job with the Ministry of Economic Warfare as a sign of cowardice. Sarah, the woman he loves, compares him to the brave soldiers she treats in hospital, and finds him wanting. As the war drags on over six long years Tony finds himself alienated from those he loves, and realises that this war will cost him far more than he ever imagined. With his relationships in England at an all-time low Tony clings to his new family, the group he puts together working with the French Resistance.
This novel tells the story of the war in Europe from many different perspectives – spy, fighter pilot, VAD nurse, Civil Defence worker, civilian, the French Resistance, American GI. The one thing they all have in common is a link to Heronfield, the country home of Tony’s family in peacetime which has been turned into a convalescent hospital for the duration of the war. It is their link with this place which enabled me to create such a diverse group of characters whose lives could be woven together in a realistic way, just as so many diverse characters really did come together during the long years of the Second World War.
Heronfield grew out of the kernel of a thought I had when reading about a soldier shot as a coward. What if he wasn’t a coward at all? What if he had to hide his true self for the good of his country? From that small seed Heronfield grew.
I have always had a passion for history, and wanted Heronfield to be as historically accurate as possible within the confines of my story. I spent years researching the key points – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the bombing of Coventry, the work of the SOE in France, civilian life, D Day and beyond. The more I learnt, the easier it was for me to weave the stories of my characters into the timeline. For me a story needs to be character driven – Who are these people? How do they react? Why? The Second World War was a time when ordinary people did extraordinary things. For me, as a historian, finding what is at the heart of these people, what makes them tick, is just as much what history is about as the politics and big battles.
In Heronfield, Tony is an idealist. He has great strength of character, is resourceful, intelligent and physically fit. He is immensely proud of the trust that his country places in him and shows great bravery under incredibly difficult circumstances, laying his life on the line in France to bring the war to an end as swiftly as possible. Yet, when in England, his life is full of frustration and anger as he watches another man with the woman he loves, unable to convince her that he is not the coward she thinks he is. Sarah wants to believe in him but finds it impossible when she sees men who are desperate to fight, and the injured from all parts of the globe. How can she love a man who sits behind a desk and does nothing? How can she care for him while he watches others die so that he can be safe? There is always a small voice inside Sarah telling her that she is wrong, that there is more to Tony than meets the eye, but after years of hurt she is faced with a choice between this man and a brave soldier who offers her love and honesty, something Tony seems incapable of. So, what should she do? As the war in Europe moves to its dramatic conclusion Sarah begins to realise that sometimes you should trust your heart, not your head. But sometimes that kind of knowledge comes to us too late.
I wrote the first draft of Heronfield when I was a ‘stay-at-home-Mum’ looking after my children. When they went to school and I returned to teaching there was no time to set aside for such a massive project, and so my manuscript sat on the shelf gathering dust until I gave up teaching and moved to India with my husband in 2008. We now live there, running a guesthouse, and I have found the time to write. Heronfield came back down from its shelf and was published in 2012. I have had some great feedback, a number of people have told me how they have learnt so much about the Second World War from reading Heronfield, which pleases the historian in me. But I also realise that people have only learnt a lot about the war in Western Europe. What about Eastern Europe? The Far East? North Africa? Over the last few months I have come to realise that Heronfield is only the first of a quartet of books which can give the same treatment to all the ‘Theatres of War’. When I have finished the novel I am currently working on I shall happily return to World War II, different characters, different stories, but still people to love and to hate and to journey with through one of the most destructive periods of man’s history.