We Must Be Brave

Written by Frances Liardet
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

This novel opens with one of the loveliest images in World War II literature: a small girl, “curled up, thumb in mouth,” and fast asleep on the bus that has evacuated her from Southampton during the December Blitz of 1940. But little Pamela is not an easy child, as Ellen Parr, the young married woman who takes the foundling into her home, quickly discovers. As the war rages on, she and Pamela fight countless battles and endure many rapprochements, until Ellen realizes that she has come to care deeply for her charge. However, the end of the war brings an unwelcome surprise, and their makeshift family is cruelly separated. Will Ellen and Pamela see each other again? As the century wears on, and Ellen reaches middle and finally old age, another child enters her life, and a friend delivers the miracle that might make a reunion possible.

A story that begins at Christmas, We Must be Brave is beautifully written. Its scope is ambitious, as it seeks to portray the longtime ravages that the war and its attendant upheavals perpetrated upon the home front. Through her relationship with Pamela—and later, Penny—we get to intimately know Ellen, whose story becomes inextricably intertwined with the fates of the girls for whom she takes responsibility. Historical war novels often feature romantic entanglements between men and women, or they depict male friendships, but this tale of a woman falling in love with a child at the height of the conflict, and recovering that love many years later, is different and original. Although 1940 was England’s darkest hour, the fact that a woman who has lost everything is willing to mother a child wanted by no one else bodes well for the future.