For an alternate glimpse of European life in 1930’s and 40’s during WWII, try this overlooked gem of a series!
For generations, the FitzOsborne family has ruled Montmaray, an tiny island off the coast of England and France. They once played a powerful role in European politics, but that time is long gone. Sophie FitzOsborne lives on this island with her uncle and cousin, Mad King John and his studious but beautiful daughter Veronica, and Sophie’s tomboyish sister, Henry. The other inhabitants number very few, and the once grand FitzOsborne estate is crumbling and barren, for they’ve not much money to pay their living. For her birthday, Sophie receives a journal from her brother, Toby, who is supposed to be away studying at Eton. As she writes of her life on the island, secrets and mysteries come to the surface but none so explosive as that of the two Germans who come to visit. The year is 1936, and WWII is imminent. Sophie’s modest observations take a deadly turn when they find themselves at odds with German interests and must flee Montmaray.
Since fleeing their island home in a German attack, the FitzOsbornes have been at the mercy of their Aunt Charlotte, a controlling yet well-meaning woman who keeps pushing the social norms upon her odd kinfolk. Veronica and Sophie will have their first Seasons coming out, in an attempt to find suitable husbands, while rapscallion Henry is hounded by her governess. Toby should be concentrating on school, but His Majesty seems to be keeping a few secrets. Newly acknowledged member of the family, Simon Chester is given a new title, Lord Chancellor of Montmaray, and he also fills the shoes as Aunt Charlotte’s assistant. As they adjust to life in England, the exiled FitzOsbornes still cannot forget their tiny island. What will happen to Montmaray? Veronica, Sophie, Simon, and Toby thrust themselves headfirst into the climactic convergence of what will become the Axis and Allied powers, desperate that their voices are heard amidst the growing clamors of war.
During WWII, Britain entered the fray as Poland was invaded by the Nazis, and this carries changes for the entire country, including the FitzOsbornes. Toby, who was hiding his secret flying lessons from everyone, has joined up with the RAF as a pilot, and coincidentally, he’s brilliant at it. Consequently, Simon is sent to follow him, ordered by a hysteric Aunt Charlotte. Veronica and Sophie are determined to do their part as well and get jobs working in the government, Veronica with the Foreign Office as a Spanish translator, and Sophie in the Ministry of Food, managing recipes for the food stamp shortages. Henry even starts directing a troupe of girls into learning skills necessary for defending the country. When Toby goes missing during a mission in a hostile France, tensions rise even as the war escalates against Germany. What will become of the FitzOsbornes and their beloved Montmaray?
The first book starts off very slowly, and must relate an unusual amount of detail before events start progressing. You find that this is necessary, mostly, to understand the later conflicts, and to fully embrace the day and age and mostly unimportant existence of the Montmaray inhabitants. Despite this slow beginning, I found myself growing to love Sophie and especially her courage enough to excite me for the next two. Also, it is excellent that the FitzOsbornes are so humble about their monarchy, and they do not put on airs as is traditionally expected. Otherwise they would not be at all likeable as they are in their disoriented and very much impoverished state.
As Sophie documents their lives at such a terrible time in history, the reader gets a unique glimpse at the Blitz of London, the war from the British perspective, and the socio-economic upheaval that inevitably occurs, mostly banding together all classes to help one another (which was somewhat unusual for such a strict societal system). Thinking from an American standpoint, we were largely used to working together, poor and rich alike, but the British serving class was supposed to be invisible. When these servants go off to war and there’s no one to replace them, it meant many aristocrats had to “get their hands dirty” and otherwise change their lifestyle to support their country. All in all, I think it takes a great heart to do such a thing, especially when they were facing bombings and surrounded by the Nazis on almost all sides with the fall of France and the invasion of the Scandinavian countries. But I’m getting off track…
From the beginning of the series, we can see a definite maturation of Sophie and of the other characters as they ‘come of age’ and find their own confidence and place to make a change in the world. There are bits of romance, of friendship, of tragedy and they cope with them all as a family.This turned out to be a surprisingly great series, especially after the first book was just so very odd and slow. I really, really loved the last two, especially since I like historical fiction and fiction about WWII. Teen viewers of Downton Abbey or fans of Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire, or The Book Thief, to name a few, might also love this series! While middle grade readers might also be drawn to this series, Sophie’s voice is much different in the final book than in the first and that should be kept in mind.
Have a Happy New Year, everyone!