Islanders and Invaders: The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat
Jenny Lecoat is perhaps currently better known as being an alternative comedian but her debut novel, The Girl from the Channel Islands (Graydon House Books, February 2021) is far from being funny. It tells the true story of Hedwig Bercu, known as Hedy, an Austrian Jew, who goes to work in Jersey to escape the Nazis, only to be trapped there when the Germans invade the Channel Islands in July 1940. During the occupation, which lasted until May 1945, Hedy initially works as a translator for the Germans, forms a lasting romantic relationship with Lieutenant Kurt Neumann, a reluctant German officer, and is sheltered for the last eighteen months of the occupation by Dorothea Weber (nee Le Brocq), herself married to Anton, an Austrian who is unwillingly drafted into the German army and sent to Europe. Both women only just survive on Dorothea’s ever diminishing rations.
Lecoat says that it was in 2016, when “Dorothea Le Brocq was awarded a posthumous Yad Vashem award for her role, I was moved to write about [this history].” Born in Jersey, with her own parents raised there during the occupation, Lecoat has a strong link to the island. As well as referencing the history books on the Channel Island Occupation, Lecoat accessed the “websites where the memories and experiences of islanders and invaders have been recorded.” Most importantly, though, Lecoat tells how “some years ago, before her death, I recorded my grandmother talking about her memories of that time. Personal recollections always bring up details that history books tend to miss.”
As Lecoat explains, “Hedy, Kurt, Dorothea and Anton were all real people, as are a couple of the local politicians, and the facts that form the foundation of the story are all documented. But how they all met, and how the relationships between them developed during the war years is not known, so their lives are re-imagined in the novel though a combination of factors: knowledge of Occupation history, some educated guesswork, and imagination.”
The book tells not only of the severe hardships experienced by the islanders as each year of the occupation brought greater and greater physical, mental and spiritual despair, but it tells also, as Lecoat says, of “personal courage and defiance.” It is the illicit relationships between the four main characters that make the book so intriguing and interesting. Although Anton Weber was Austrian he sounded like a German to the islanders and was forced to fight the allies; this made Dorothea’s family spurn her after she got married. If Hedy and Kurt’s relationship had ever been discovered it would most likely have resulted in both their deaths. Lastly, the relationship between Dorothea and Hedy starts with a definite lack of interest on Hedy’s side, but ends up as being as close as it could possibly be, with Dorthea risking her life on a daily basis in order to protect Hedy from being found by the Nazis.
An added layer to the story, which adds to its pathos, is, as Lecoat explains, “the fact that she (Hedy) was Jewish in Nazi-occupied territory obviously placed her in greater danger than the wider, non-Jewish island population. I think the fact that she had fled to the island from Austria, and was therefore seen as an outsider from the start, possibly even associated with the invading forces, would have made her life even harder.”
Lecoat explains her writing process when she’s “fictionalising a true story, I start with the facts, then try to develop the characters from the facts that are known about them. How people behave and the choices they make tell you a great deal about them. In this case, the choices the main characters make are sometimes forced on them, but when they do have options, all of them choose the most courageous path.”
The novel has already been published in May 2020 by Polygon with the title of “Hedy’s War” and Lecoat explains that it has also been published in a number of countries. Regardless of the title and although the book focuses on four characters, Lecoat ultimately wants to honour the people of Jersey: “This book is a salute to their real-life bravery.”
About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer of fairy tales, out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in The Jewel Garden. Her second published novel, Song of the Nightingale, tells of the fate of two young castrati and was the Fiction Winner of the 2020 International Rubery Book Award. Marilyn is in the process of completing a second book of a trilogy that will tell of three generations of women who are storytellers but who face sometimes insurmountable obstacles to getting their her-stories heard. The first book is with a literary agent, who is looking for a publisher.