I really hadn’t planned on reading or blogging about two WWII novels back-to-back. (In fact, when I first saw the cover of this book, I mistook the parachutes for flying saucers and was thus a bit surprised to find it set in WWII.) Still, Mal Peet’s Tamar, winner of the Carnegie Medal (Britain’s equivalent of the Newbery), was too good not to write about.
Peet uses two linked story lines to narrate this story of secrets. The book opens in 1979, when a father suggests Tamar as a name for his son’s first child. Although the older man has never talked about his time with the SOE, he now volunteers the information that agents in his group all received code names using British rivers – thus, Tamar. Later, when the son’s wife announces the baby’s name during a family dinner, her mother-in-law, Marijke, drops the serving plate.
Shift to 1944, with Tamar and his wireless operator Dart hoping to evade the Germans as they parachute into the Netherlands to work with the Dutch resistance. Tamar’s cover as Christiaan Boogart, a farm worker, allows him to stay with the woman he loves – Marijke – and her mute grandmother on a farm. Dart, disguised as a doctor, is seeing the area for the first time. His base will be the town’s asylum – perhaps an ironic choice considering the mental strains wireless operators endured and the problems that will occur when Dart constructs an imagined romance.
At first, plans advance smoothly and the story remains that of WWII espionage, focusing on the clandestine efforts of the resistance and the challenges of life in an occupied country. Complications set in: Tamar has been sent to unite the various factions of the Dutch Resistance, and some resist his attempts to control them. Moreover, Tamar and Marijke have kept their relationship hidden, and Dart has fallen in love with Marijke, believing the feelings are reciprocal.
Shift to 1995, as sixteen-year-old Tamar ponders her grandfather’s apparent suicide. Opening a box he has left her, she discovers an odd collection of items – a half-finished crossword puzzle the two had worked on together, Ordnance Survey maps of the Tamar River, 1,945 pounds in bills of assorted denominations, an old photograph of two young men, and a foreign passport for Christiaan Boogart. She understands he’s left her a puzzle to solve – but not the what or why. Aided by a Dutch friend, she begins a journey to the places marked on the maps. Chapters charting their discoveries as they follow the Tamar River to its source alternate with a different type of revelations in 1945, when unfortunate timing and a rash move by one defiant Resistance group – and the exposure of certain secrets -- bring destruction and death.
Although some of the grandfather’s secrets weren’t hard to penetrate, the story was still compelling, and the use of the contemporary plot interwoven with the WWII story made the latter particularly effective. (This dual narrative – story in the present containing the outcome of tale from the past – seems quite popular for WWII juvenile and YA fiction: Jane Yolen’s Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, and, more recently, Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter. Is this technique another way of reinforcing that the past and present are connected – or is there something in particular about WWII that inspires it?)
Possible spoilers and some musings on the oddities of American publishing: The British edition I read, issued by Walker Books, is subtitled “A Novel of Secrecy and Survival” – a perfect description of the core of this story – the unifying element and the ironic/heart-breaking one. The edition in my local bookstore and on Amazon, however, has a new subtitle “A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal” – thus practically giving away a major plot twist. I find myself wondering – did the US publisher feel that American readers wouldn’t be able to anticipate later plot developments and thus needed to be prepared for the outcome? Or, as with Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone, were they afraid that without an extra hint of drama (and, in this case, romance), the book wouldn’t sell? (And is there really such a difference between readers in the two countries?)