Wartime sweethearts by Lola Jaye | Romance, WWll fiction | Publisher: Penguin | Review by African Queer
It is quite rare to find race, wartime drama and romance mixed together to form a captivating historical tale, but Wartime Sweethearts is a work of fiction that straddles these topics with both ease and tact. Based on the English side’s accounts of the World War Two effort, Lola Jaye unpacks the impact that an unlikely romance between an American GI in transit and a local woman can have on generations to come. The result is a delicate account of perseverance, survival and hope in a post-War, segregated world.
Racism: Expectation vs Reality
One does not necessarily have to think over whether they are racist or not if they are never confronted with the presence of persons of other races in their lives. And in a little English village in the 1940s, one need not worry about intrusion by foreigners. World War Two, however, changed this fact for the three main characters in the book. Rose, Marigold and Flora, three sisters in the budding years of adulthood, find themselves having to interact with the Americans who are in England to assist with the war. Surprisingly, the Americans arrive in all shades and races. The first thing the reader will notice from the narrative is the difference between racism from an American perspective as compared to homegrown British racism. The Americans are shown to take a much more violent approach to racism. But at the end of the day, racism is racism. It is difficult to choose one form of oppression over another.
And what happens when persons of a different race are born into your own family? How do you react? What do you do with these family members upon the full realisation that the rest of society will shun and maltreat them? How do you protect the darker skinned members of your family, and does hiding them away from the rest of the world count as protection? Rose, Flora and Marigold each find themselves confronting these questions, and resolving them in their own unique, though often misguided, way.
When Racism meets Sexism
Lola Jaye reminds us of two things: in the years after the war, it was unheard of for women to venture into what were considered the more technical professions. A woman simply couldn’t be expected to grapple with the rigours of a high-level profession such as science (never mind the fact that, at the time when the men were at war, it was upon the women to build and assemble technical war equipment). This impossibility would become even more greatly solidified for Black women; the audacity to consider oneself an equal to white men in any regard was borderline blasphemous. Breaking through this glass ceiling as a young Black woman in urban London was indeed the feat of the time. One that Lily, one of the main protagonists of the book, takes head-on. Lily is an inspirational character not only due to her tenacity but also due to her conviction at the time to not let her race get in the way of her aspirations.
Blackness and womanhood also unfortunately often intersect in a manner that seeks to either amplify the sexuality of Black women or erase it altogether, without the permission of the subjects being sought. The hypersexualised, feminine, Black form is subjected to uncomfortable gaze, exploitation and harassment. One of the characters unwittingly finds herself sold into sex work, with the position having been available to her especially because she is Black and therefore ‘exotic’ to the white gaze.
Dealing with Mental Illness after the War
In his letters after returning home from the war, William Burrell, one of the American GIs, often alludes to having several days when he feels a sadness take over him and paralyse him, rendering him incapable of working as he would like to. He explains that this cloud of sadness often lasts several weeks and is worsened by mulling over his thoughts. Though put in a very simple and elementary manner, it is clear that William, because of all his internal reflective work, understands that he has a mental condition, even though he does not have the medical terms to explain this.
Jaye is painting a picture for the reader, of what a veteran went through long before terms such as PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) were ascribed to military persons in distress. It is refreshing to read on the mental aspects of war within a period drama, opening the eyes of the reader to the realisation that even without a diagnosis, those struggling with mental illness still found a way to cope. William practices his own rudimentary form of self-care, but even in this instance, it is difficult to ignore the fact that so many more veterans are not often as lucky as William to return to a stable home environment where they can recover after the war.
Wartime Sweethearts is, above all else, a story about family and the familial bonds that tie us together across generations and continents. Lola Jaye extols the power that family and familial love can have in healing the wounds of hurt that can arise from rejection and abandonment. With a little bit of understanding and a whole lot of forgiveness, even the greatest wounds can be healed within the family.