“I was in Paris the day the French Army was mobilized.”
Those words, spoken by Lady Elspeth Douglas, open the latest novel by the mother and son writing team known as Charles Todd. Elspeth is the daughter of nobility; her father was a Scottish Highland aristocrat and part of a clan that can trace their roots back to Mary Queen of Scots. With the death of her father, all decisions about Elspeth’s future rest in the hands of her Uncle Kenneth until she has reached the age of 30.
Elspeth finds herself in Paris visiting her friend, Madeline. It is during this visit that she finds herself falling for Madeline’s brother, Alain. During their brief courtship, Alain gives Elspeth a family heirloom --- a ruby ring --- which is to act as a symbol of his desire to marry her. He must officially seek her hand from her Uncle Kenneth.
Unfortunately, all plans are put on hold as this story is set against the backdrop of the early days of World War I in late 1914. German troops are making their way through Europe, and when they overtake Belgium, all residents of France realize they are next in line for battle. Alain is among the many young men who enlist in the army to do battle against the German threat.
"THE WALNUT TREE is labeled a Holiday Tale but is so much more than that. There are not many writers who are able to capture the feelings of Europe during the WWI era like Charles Todd, and this courageous tale is no exception."
Having nothing else to do and with her engagement on hold, Elspeth attempts to leave Paris and return to England. The battle has drawn dangerously close, and safe passage is not entirely possible. Elspeth finds herself trapped along the French coast and awaiting word of when she can attempt to leave the country. During a particularly lethal skirmish, she finds herself rescued from harm and kept safe by a gallant young British captain named Peter Gilchrist.
Eventually finding her way back to London, Elspeth is also affected by the incidents she lived through and haunted by the memory of the officer who risked his safety to get her out of Paris. She enlists in a nursing course and begins to train. Ironically, one of her fellow nurses in training is Bess Crawford, the star of a popular Charles Todd series herself. Unable to get her family’s approval to officially become a nurse, Elspeth still moves forward in her service and finds herself shifted between both England and France to wherever help is most needed.
Another one of her fellow nurses, a young woman named Diane, offers Elspeth use of her cottage in Sussex amidst the English countryside. It seems Elspeth has been relieved of her duties as it comes to light that she was serving without the authorization of her family. Elspeth is in correspondence the entire time not only with her friends in France regarding Alain but also with the Peter. She begins to feel quite guilty as her feelings for Peter overtake those she had for Alain. This is especially magnified when she learns that Alain was taken captive by German forces after fighting gallantly against them in a fierce battle.
During her travels, Elspeth comes across a wounded Peter and invites him to the cottage of her nursing friend where he can recover. It is here, at the cottage that is fronted by a magnificent walnut tree decorated with beautiful candlelight for the Christmas holiday, that her relationship with Peter blossoms. She does not tell him about Alain, which makes things difficult as Peter delivers her a homemade engagement ring as a Christmas present.
Before she can give Peter an answer, she receives word from Paris that Alain has been rescued and his family requests that Elspeth be there for him. Regrettably, Alain lost his right arm while he was in captivity and has sunk into a deep depression; he has changed and does not expect Elspeth to honor their unofficial engagement. Emotionally torn and at risk of losing both of the men in her life, Elspeth must make a quick decision ---- one that no doubt will have serious ramifications for all involved.
THE WALNUT TREE is labeled a Holiday Tale but is so much more than that. There are not many writers who are able to capture the feelings of Europe during the WWI era like Charles Todd, and this courageous tale is no exception. I particularly liked the dedication that they make with this novel to a mystery bookstore that is closing its doors, a sobering look at the times we live in where independent bookshops are disappearing at a rapid rate. Both this dedication and the terrific story that follows give the reader much to think about during the holiday season.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 30, 2012