Jacqueline Winspear forces us to ponder the question of how we deal with evil in her latest historical fiction, “The White Lady.” Do people betray others because they are evil, or is it simply due to the base instincts of man? I say “man” because in this novel, and as we usually see in life, it’s often the males of our species who perpetrate the ultimate betrayals and the ultimate greedy grabs for gold and power. Those in the throes of such attempts to claw their way to positions of influence will usually step on anyone in their way, including women and children. And that’s what Winspear clearly demonstrates in this powerful, thrilling novel.
The hero of the story is Elinor De Witt, also known as Elinor White. And interestingly, although the whole story is really about her and her experiences across two world wars, Winspear starts the story with the family who live down the road, a family whose predicament is the catalyst that will change Elinor’s life—both how she sees herself and how she views those around her.
Elinor is an extremely capable woman who is both terribly admirable (as the British in the novel might say) and yet awfully flawed. She lives her quiet life always on the defense, always watching out for someone who might come to upset her peace and solitude, and every day, she lives with a broken heart because of something that happened in her past—something for which she holds herself responsible. So when she grows a bit attached to the Mackie family who live in a small cottage down the road from her, it’s mostly due to the charm of Jim and Rose’s three-year-old daughter Susie. Because, as we learn, Elinor has a soft spot for children.
When the past comes to threaten the Mackie family, who rather naively thought they had escaped from criminal family entanglements, Elinor rushes in to help them. Uncharacteristically, she has not thought through her actions; instead, she has responded emotionally. But as Winspear slowly reveals through flashbacks to Elinor’s childhood in Belgium during the First World War, and through her heroic actions in that war and in World War II, Elinor is a formidable opponent. Thanks to the deft narrative providing us Elinor’s point of view, we come to understand her and care for her. We see, right at the beginning, through Rose Mackie’s eyes, how Elinor dresses in white during a snowy winter and in light green in the spring, both choices enabling her to move in the forest almost unseen. We see how Elinor keeps to herself, not getting to know those in the village and how she works diligently to maintain her home herself from working in the garden to cleaning it. What Rose can’t see is how Elinor’s past has honed her body and mind so that she is now a resourceful, steely, determined woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal.
And now, that goal is the safety of the Mackie family.
The writing is lovely, and while most of the narrative revolves around action and dialogue, there are some beautiful metaphors. When describing how Elinor craves normality while living a life of uncertainty during the war, she writes, “And for Elinor belonging had been so elusive; a butterfly settling on a rose for just the briefest moment, leaving behind only a passing memory of color.” Elinor is different—in her perspicaciousness and her foresight—and she knows this to her core. But that is precisely what sets her apart from her family and others and that which makes her a hero.
Winspear effectively ends the narrative with an almost century-old quote from Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children and who drafted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, “Every war is a war against the child.” The abduction of Ukrainian children by Russia once again demonstrates that horror, which unfortunately has not changed over time. And Elinor is determined that the war taking place in her quiet neighborhood, the war against her Mackie neighbors, will not harm the child.
While this book is filled with the horrors of two world wars, the people we read about are inspiring. It’s both thrilling and humbling to read about the unsung heroes, ordinary villagers, even children (like young Elinor and her sister), who risked their lives to do the right thing during those wars — wars that were created, like most wars, by men. Wars fought mostly by men. Wars in which captains and commanders for the most part discounted any contribution by women, although women were and are quite capable of plotting and planning subterfuge and action.
As in recent releases like “The Sapphire Code” by Pamela Jenoff, “The Girl from Guernica” by Karen Robards, and “The Diamond Eye” by Kate Quinn, the true accounts of women’s contributions and sacrifices in war are many. While this particular story is not based on actual events, the story that Winspear shares could be true of myriad women who lived through those wars.
The issues that Winspear raises are questions that readers will ponder when thinking about the outcome of the story. Do we believe that one must avenge past wrongs? Is there a karmic mandate that betrayals must be punished? Or as one of the characters says toward the end of the novel, “No one who wants a peaceful, safe life needs a weapon. Only soldiers at war need guns…” That’s a perfect final insight, because while her ability to handle guns saved Elinor many times, she hated what they represented. And that’s how it should be. We should hate that which is created to kill, and we should feel that a safe, peaceful life is one in which we don’t have or need such weapons of destruction. If those who served in such wars decry the use of killing weapons during times of peace, we should learn from their wise reflections.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.