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The White Lady


The White Lady

Jacqueline Winspear forces us to ponder the question of how we deal with evil in her latest work of 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 book, and as we see in life, it's often the male of our species who perpetrate the ultimate betrayals and greedy grabs for gold and power. Those in the throes of such attempts to achieve 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 book’s hero is Elinor De Witt, also known as “Miss White.” Interestingly, although THE WHITE LADY is really about her and her experiences across two world wars, Winspear starts with the family who lives down the road. Their predicament is the catalyst that will change Elinor's life --- in terms of how she sees both herself and those around her.

"While THE WHITE LADY is filled with the horrors of two world wars, the people here are inspiring. It's both thrilling and humbling to read about the unsung heroes, ordinary villagers and even children (like Elinor and her sister) who risked their lives to do the right thing."

Elinor is an extremely capable woman who is terribly admirable (as the British in the novel might say) yet awfully flawed. She lives her quiet life 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 for which she holds herself responsible. So when she grows slightly 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 Mackies, who rather naively thought they had escaped from criminal family entanglements, Elinor rushes in to help them. Uncharacteristically, she has not thought this through; 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 there 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. Through Rose’s eyes, we see that Elinor dresses in white during a snowy winter and in light green in the spring, enabling her to move in the forest almost unseen. Elinor keeps to herself, not getting to know those in the village, and works diligently to maintain her home. 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 fulfill her goal.

And now, that goal is the safety of the Mackie family.

The writing is lovely, and while most of the novel 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 perspicacity and foresight --- and she knows this to her core. But that is precisely what sets her apart from her family and others, and makes her a hero.

Winspear effectively ends the book with an almost century-old quote from Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children and 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 unfortunate reality, which has not changed over time. Elinor is determined that the war taking place in her quiet neighborhood, the war against her neighbors, will not harm the child.

While THE WHITE LADY is filled with the horrors of two world wars, the people here are inspiring. It's both thrilling and humbling to read about the unsung heroes, ordinary villagers and even children (like Elinor and her sister) who risked their lives to do the right thing. These wars were created and mostly fought by men. Captains and commanders for the most part discounted any contributions by women, although they were and are quite capable of plotting and planning subterfuge and action.

As in such recent releases as Pam Jenoff’s THE SAPPHIRE CODE, Karen Robards’ THE GIRL FROM GUERNICA and Kate Quinn’s THE DIAMOND EYE, true accounts of women's accomplishments and sacrifices in war are many. While this particular tale is not based on actual events, the story that Winspear shares could apply to any number of women who lived through those wars.

The issues that Winspear raises are questions that readers will have on their minds when thinking about the outcome. 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 towards 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. While her ability to handle guns saved her many times, Elinor 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 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.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on March 23, 2023

The White Lady
by Jacqueline Winspear