Hale’s novel is a fictionalized version of her own family’s history. Christopher Brooke is jailed in Britain in 1940 under Regulation 18B for being an adherent of Sir Oswald Mosley and a Nazi sympathizer. The book examines how Christopher’s beliefs affect him, his wife Cynthia, their Irish maid Mary, and the Brooke children. Parts of the story are narrated by the youngest child Katie, the stand-in for Hale, as well as by Mary.
Despite harsh treatment in prison, Christopher holds stoutly to his beliefs, becoming a blatant admirer of Hitler, even prone to giving the Nazi salute. Neighbors shun them, and Christopher’s parents and relatives exclude him from family gatherings once he’s released mid-war. Christopher persists in what he sees as his mission, buying property to form a sort of commune intended to promote his ideas. The children become estranged, partly due to their father’s frequent absences. Cynthia loves Christopher, remembering the wonderful dancer and pianist of the past, but she disagrees with his views and disapproves of his lower-class associates. The resulting conflict of loyalty vs. aversion puts their marriage to an extreme test.
Reading the novel and then Hale’s blog on her family’s real story and how she adapted it for the book is fascinating. At first, I didn’t appreciate the multiple points of view or the shifting present and past tense narration, but Hale’s style grew on me. The reader is not spoon-fed information, sometimes having to wait for a later chapter for an explanation of why something happened. While readers may get exasperated with Christopher’s stubborn persistence in his egregious beliefs, Hale’s skill gives the character a measure of sympathy nevertheless. Mad Hatter is an absorbing story about a lesser-known aspect of the World War II years and its effect on homefront lives.