KATE THOMPSON is an award-winning journalist and author whose novels include The Little Wartime Library and Secrets of the Lavender Girls.
Her latest novel, The Wartime Book Club is a historical fiction novel that is inspired by the true events of the resistance in Jersey during the German occupation in World War II. AKINA HANSEN writes.
The island of Jersey in the English Channel is a scenic place surrounded by glistening blue sea and filled with green meadows and farmhouses. Yet despite its picturesque qualities, it’s also a place with a harrowing history.
During World War II it was the only British territory to be occupied by German forces until liberation in 1945. Under Nazi rule, islanders were subjected to various horrors from imprisonment, deportation, violence, curfews to censorship.
The Wartime Book Club is based on this historical period and follows the women who joined the resistance on the island during this time.
It was in September 2019 that Kate first visited the island while on a trip to the Jersey Festival of Words. While there she came across a small plaque on the wall of the Jersey War Tunnels, which honoured Jersey’s Postal Workers during the Occupation.
‘To me this is one of the greatest untold resistance stories,’ says Kate.
During occupation, in an act of defiance against the Nazi regime, postal workers intercepted and destroyed informers’ letters to the German Commandment, risking their own lives to prevent the incarceration and death of fellow locals.
‘Certain postmen either chucked these informers’ letters straight in the boiler, or they would steam them open. Letters which weren’t destroyed would be held back for three days before they were date stamped and then delivered. In the meantime, the postman on his rounds would have warned the recipient that a search was imminent, and the radio or other forbidden item would be hastily removed,’ she tells me.
Kate’s novel, The Wartime Book Club was inspired by these postmen and follows lifelong friends, Bea, a postwoman, and Grace, a librarian.
When the Nazi regime hands down a directive to ban certain books, Grace decides to hide them. This marks the beginning of her acts of defiance and over the course of the novel she begins distributing banned books and goes on to establish a book club to boost morale.
During the occupation, the Germans ran a restrictive regime enforcing curfews, banning dances, and closing down beaches, clubs and societies. Reading was the only source of entertainment that islanders could enjoy. It provided people with comfort and offered them an escape when they were faced with limited freedoms.
‘A gentleman I interviewed called Leo, sadly since passed away, told me: “Reading was the only true form of joy and solace, the only intellectual freedom we still possessed.”
‘Can you imagine that? When life was dull, dangerous, full of privation and hunger, it must have felt like sheer bliss to be able to open the pages of a book and escape, if only for a chapter,’ says Kate.
While The Wartime Book Club is a work of historical fiction, it sheds light on how book censorship is used to restrict the flow of information and oppress and emotionally break the masses. Disturbingly, it’s an issue that’s on the rise today. According to PEN America – a non-profit that supports freedom of expression in literature – book bans in US public schools have increased by 33 per cent over the last school year. The impacts of such bans are insidious and seek to divide people and drive socioeconomic inequality.
‘Reading uncensored books is an essential tool to critical thinking and for a healthy functioning democracy, as it was in World War II, as it is now,’ says Kate.
Kate drives home this sentiment with her character Grace who importantly declares, ‘Books are what get me out of bed each day, Bea. It’s how I continue the fight, because they are the last bastion of democracy.’
The importance of literature in bringing people together through times of hardship and to study the past are fundamental to human growth and compassion. This is particularly the case with historical fiction.
‘Reading well-researched historical fiction and non-fiction enables us to learn from the past. If the story is compelling it grabs us on an emotional level, making us feel and live with those characters and, in many cases, readers then go onto to explore and research the time period. Sometimes there is reassurance in looking back, other times horror, shock and anger, but there is always learning. Education is the key to understanding and, if historical fiction can play a small part in that, so much the better,’ says Kate.
The Wartime Book Club is one such example and sheds light on the devastating impacts of war and the human cost of such violence. When Bea loses her father and her fiance, it compels her to make a stand against the Germans. She begins opening letters addressed to the Gestapo which shockingly reveal fellow islanders informing on their neighbours for using prohibited items such as a wireless through to keeping allies or POWs hidden in their homes.
Bea’s actions eventually grab the attention of a stationed German Commander who begins to suspect her involvement in a resistance network and, in turn, begins surveying her movements which ultimately leads to harrowing consequences.
One such person is Louisa Gould, a member of Grace’s book club. She is based on a real Jersey woman whose son was killed in action in 1941.
While the character of Bea isn’t based on a real person, she is an amalgamation of the individuals Kate interviewed for this novel. And she importantly represents the brave postal workers who resisted the regime.
‘I was privileged to interview many islanders about their memories of this time in my five visits to the island between 2019 and 2022. Some came in the form of pre-arranged interviews, others came when I pitched up at Age Concern coffee mornings and sat and listened spellbound to the back-and-forth memories, the unfiltered gush of social history that brings the past alive,’ says Kate.
In fact, many of the characters in the book were inspired by real people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. One such person is Louisa Gould, a member of Grace’s book club. She is based on a real Jersey woman whose son was killed in action in 1941.
According to Kate she was a remarkable woman who took in an escaped Russian soldier, many of whom had been sent to the Channel Islands to build concentration camps. Despite her heroism, she was eventually informed on and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She died there and never returned home.
‘I don’t suppose it occurred to Louisa for one moment that she would end up in such a place for her misdemeanour. Why would it? Sheltered from the knowledge of the camps and with all their news censored, she could never have dreamt that such a place of apocalyptic horror was awaiting her. I don’t suppose any of the islanders who perished in camps did either. I was determined to feature Louisa in the book so readers could see that islanders were never safe from Nazi brutality.’
Importantly, Kate notes that while this is a work of fiction, she has stayed true to the history and events of this period and hasn’t shifted facts to suit her story.
‘I feel duty bound to the past and the people who lived through it to create an authentic story that speaks to their experience. Real life is always more extraordinary than anything you could make up, so why change it? That way I hope people are assured that when they read of a bombing, or a German order or arrest, it really did happen.’
The Wartime Book Club looks at the suffering, brutality, and violence of war, but it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the brave individuals who went to extraordinary lengths to provide hope to fellow islanders in times of incredible hardship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Thompson an award-winning journalist, ghostwriter and novelist who has spent the past two decades in the UK mass market and book publishing industry. Over the past seven years Kate has written nine fiction and non-fiction titles, three of which have made the Sunday Times top 10 bestseller list.