Zaleski: Candid memoir leaves reader wanting more
How about an exceptional non-fiction book for winter reading?
"War Torn: A Family Story" by Felicity Vaughan Swayze (Felicity Vaughan Swayze, 2016) is one of the most personal, emotional and candid memoirs I've ever read. The author never lets the reader forget that the memories, speculations, conclusions and unanswered questions are hers. No sugar-coating here, but rather a powerful chronicle about people caught up in a time of war and uncertainty.
The author's story is an account of a young family deeply affected by the onset of World War II, when Nazi bombs threatened London and other British cities. Born in England in 1937, Felicity, twin brother, Peter, and their mother, Paddy, are sent to America in 1940—a decision made by their father, Tom, in order to get them out of harm's way. It seems the wise and noble thing to do, but early in the memoir doubts about Tom's commitment to his family creep into the narrative.
Aided by a trove of recently discovered letters from her father in England to her mother in the U.S., Felicity stitches together their complicated relationship, which, from the beginning, had a profound effect on the lives of her and her brother. By her recollections and her parents' correspondence, she paints fascinating portraits of her mother and father—their foibles, strengths and weaknesses, love for each other, and eventually their determination to live an ocean apart.
My wife, Sandi, and I read the book and then enjoyed a long lunch in Hanover, N.H., with Felicity and her husband, Townsend. Both in their vigorous 80s, they live near Tunbridge, Vt., not far from where we stay when we are out there. Sandi met Felicity at a dinner party for community women at the home of my high school classmate, who retired to Tunbridge.
At lunch, Felicity was eager to talk about her work, including speculation about her father's motivation. She is convinced he sincerely wanted his family safe, even as he opted to stay in England to be with another woman. On the other hand, Felicity was up-close witness to her mother's life in the U.S., including time on a Minnesota farm; a period when their financial situation was perilous; and Paddy's landing of a steady and rewarding job at the British consulate in St. Paul. She was a single mother who was ahead of her time in that she embraced independence and had the character to make her way in a sometimes hostile land.
The story extends to the present, weaving several threads into a cohesive tapestry. But Felicity doesn't tie every thread into a neat and satisfying bow. Instead, she does what good writers do: She leaves the reader wanting more.
The memoir is on bookstore shelves in Vermont and New Hampshire, and can be ordered at Fargo Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and Google books.com. The author at firstname.lastname@example.org can send you one, also. It's priced (Barnes & Noble) at about $10.50. Worth every dime.