Books to Love: A Slice of Heroism

Lili,” Eve asked impulsively. “Are you ever afraid?”
Lili turned, rain dripping off the edge of her umbrella in a silver curtain between her and Eve. “Yes, just like everybody else. But only after the danger is done- before that, fear is an indulgence.” She slid her hand through Eve’s elbow. “Welcome to the Alice Network.
— The Alice Network, Kate Quinn

One of my favorite things is reading about strong characters- male or female.

I come by this naturally. My Nana, my maternal grandmother, was a Marine during World War II. When it comes to strong characters, she was the poster child.

This is why Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network left such an impact on me.

Quinn herself has a strong voice. I fell in love with her style back when I first read Mistress of Rome and her subsequent Rome novels. In those books, she excels at creating strong characters, particularly fighters- be they soldiers, senators, or slaves. She crafts these fighters so well. Even in the midst of their greatest weaknesses, they still possess indelible fortitude.

I was uncertain at the start of The Alice Network. Having only read Quinn’s ancient Rome historical fictions, I had no idea if the era change would impact the way I read her voice. Dear readers, it did not at all. In fact, the characters- particularly the women- in The Alice Network carry on Quinn’s legacy; they are dynamic and tenacious, just the right balance of tough and tender. They are feisty. They are gutsy. Sometimes they are even frightened. But at all times, they are courageous.

The Alice Network refers to a network of spies during World War I headed by a female whose alias is Alice Dubois. Aside from the two main characters, Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner, the panoply of female spies were real women. Real, remarkable women whose stories are a mix of adventure, bravery, sacrifice, and even tragedy.

Alice Dubois was a real woman by the name of Louise de Bettignies. Years after the war, a member of British Intelligence is quoted regarding her service, “Possibly, during the course of the war… one or two services equaled hers. Not one has ever surpassed it.”

Louise de Bettignies received numerous honors and accolades posthumously, but, as is ever the case, the service she rendered her country and her country’s allies cannot be captured with awards and other such honoraries. She lived her life upon a knife’s point, knowing each day could be her last. Yet, in spite of the constant threat of danger and disaster, she soldiered on, perhaps most remarkably with an almost Pollyanna spirit. She never complained about the danger, but accepted it as a fact and moved past it because she knew she must to succeed at her mission. To her, fear was an indulgence she could not afford. And even when the worst befell her, she maintained a joyfulness that surpassed mortal understanding.

During my operation, I envisioned death calmly and without fear; today I add a feeling of joy and pride because I refused to denounce anyone, and I hope those I saved through my silence will be grateful and thank me by keeping me in their prayers.

The Alice Network is not an easy read. So often books which showcase such intrepid figures are not because their formidability and strength are honed by the hardest of adversities. Kate Quinn does not pull any punches. She spells out the horrors of war and the fallout thereafter. You will read about the innocents who were murdered in Oradour-sur-Glane, a place that has preserved itself as a ghostly homage to the massacre at the hands of the Nazis. That is not the only torturous recounting you will read. Yet, I am grateful to Kate Quinn for recounting these events and breathing life into these people on the page. Remembering these courageous women is important. Such deeds of bravery should not be forgotten. And, as is sadly so often the case, such heroes tend to become lost in the annals of history.

Set during two time periods- during World War I and post-World War II- we readers are able to slowly knit together the nail biting story of Eve Gardiner, a spy in the Alice Network. We meet Eve in both these time periods. During World War I, the narrative is from her perspective. Post-World War II, we see her through the young and untried eyes of Charlie St. Clair, an American woman who has come to England and subsequently France on a mission to find her beloved cousin, Rose, who went missing during the war. Together these two women face their pasts, which have left them both scarred. By dealing with their fractures and broken places, we as observers find ourselves on a journey of redemption. And while that journey is a difficult one full of horror and heartbreak, the conclusion is massively satisfying.

I’ll not write too much more as I want you to go to your local bookshop or library and scoop up your own copy to gobble down. But I will say this, whether the characters were fictional or historical, whether they walked this Earth in real life or only on the page, they bring back to life the horrors of war and showcase the indefatigable nature of humankind which strives toward the hope of a better tomorrow. May we all take to heart Louise’s words:

I know I’ll be caught one day, but I shall have served. Let us hurry, and do great things while there is yet time.