It’s December and officially the Christmas season, so let’s do the two Christmas-themed Dear Americas! This book differs from most of the others in several ways, but it’s still interesting and well-done.
Book: When Christmas Comes Again: The World War One Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917, Beth Seidel Levine, 2002.
In order to write a novel about a girl involved in the army, she had to be quite a bit older, so Simone is seventeen at the outset of the novel (compared to the average Dear America protagonist, who is eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and very occasionally older). This is also one of those rare DA novels about a wealthy, upper-class girl—the vast majority of them focus on girls who are poor or middle-class, I would assume for relatability reasons among the majority of readers. Actually, very interestingly, another one is A Time For Courage, which also takes place in 1917, in a strange coincidence that I think was probably not intended.
Anyway, Simone is “society” indeed, thanks to her incredibly wealthy father, and a bit bored of things. She doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduating high school, but now since war has just been declared, it adds an “exciting” bustle to things. Simone’s mother is French and owns a chapelier, or hat shop, because she was bored to tears and refused to sit around doing nothing and presumably, being society all day. Simone’s mother was a humble girl in a bake shop in Paris when her father met her, and Simone has grown up on stories about Paris and true love, fate, etc., which is going to come back to be important.
Simone’s older brother, Will, is married to a very upper-class girl named Caroline, whom Simone didn’t quite like at first, but eventually comes around to. She much prefers the company of her best friend Francie, who is “outrageous,” and her mother and Sally, their cook. So she roams around the city with Francie (with the chauffeur following closely behind!), complaining about Francie’s very haughty mother and their exams.
Will, rather than wait for the draft, opts to sign up for the army himself, which just about wrecks Caroline, Simone, and her mother. But they put on brave faces when he goes off to basic training and then ships out, and despite all Simone’s sadness and fear for him, she wishes she could do something besides just rolling bandages and forgoing meat on Fridays. She decides to go into nursing school, but her father insists that before that she volunteer a bit at the hospital where he works.
But she hates it—it’s more than she bargained for. She’s fine with doing inventory and rolling bandages and all the other stuff, but she runs into a young man who’s been lying in a hospital bed with no one to come and see him and hasn’t said a word since he got there. She keeps going for a couple of weeks, reading to him to try and draw him out, and he finally responds to the end of A Christmas Carol (despite it being August, because this is a Christmas-themed book) and confesses that he signed up under an assumed name. Simone arranges to have his parents notified and they arrive just limp with relief, and Thomas’s rehab manages to speed right up after that. But then, once he’s up and around—he leaves quite suddenly, bound for California and a job in the “pictures.”
So given Simone’s discomfort with the nursing profession, she is ludicrously excited when they announce a call for French-speaking young women to serve as telephone relay operators at the front! Simone is thrilled that her French will finally pay off, and when they tell her she’s too young, she loses her mind with frustration. (As would I). But after a couple of weeks they remove the age restriction (since apparently, French-speaking American girls were quite not as thick on the ground as they had presumed) and Simone signs up without so much as a by-your-leave from her parents. But they aren’t terribly upset with her (and even her grandparents are proud in spite of themselves), and a friend of her father’s swears her in as an officer in the middle of December.
Before Christmas, Simone’s mother takes her and Francie shopping to a little Christmas store, where Simone sees a little porcelain angel but leaves it at the store in favour of something else. Simone gets her army uniform as a gift, “quite chic” she pronounces it. And then it’s only a couple of weeks before she starts training—and instantly finds herself way over her head. One of the things I like most about this book is how Simone starts out with really high hopes and then gets flattened by stuff that’s much harder than she anticipated—which is very realistic for teenagers, as it was for me and I am confident millions of others. Things are never quite as easy as people make it look.
Simone also finds herself in hot water with the other women since she is far wealthier than all of them, and they resent her as a snob. Most of them are from humble beginnings, and Simone feels quite outclassed by them in terms of capability—since she’s really not been asked to do a thing for herself in all her life. But after six or seven weeks of training they ship out across the Atlantic, and Francie gives Simone as a going-away present the little porcelain angel from Christmas.
Simone is dreadfully seasick and miserable the whole way, and once they make it to England she stumbles across a girl curled up under a lifeboat sobbing dreadfully, who says she’s frightened out of her wits. Simone confesses that she, too, has been crying every night, and they become fast friends. Alice, the crying girl, comes from a poor Boston family (although we never learn how she became fluent in French). Once they make it to Paris, Simone and her go traipsing through her mother’s old neighbourhoods for a bit before being posted to their first duty station in the countryside.
Like many things, it’s far harder than Simone could have imagined. But she gets used to the work—stressful and challenging though it is, she finds it rewarding and exciting to be able to help in such a concrete way. And that June, she and the other girls go to a dance and she gets to see her brother! Who has not been notified that she’s overseas and consequently thinks he’s going crazy for a bit, but after the initial shock wears off, he’s excited to see her. She’s more excited to see his friend, Sam, and Simone thinks she’s falling in love at first sight.
Which turns out to be quite short-lived! The next week, Will and Sam come by to have dinner with Simone and Alice, and Sam turns out to have quite a chip on his shoulder about the society set in general, and says his mother worked in a society house all her life, and that “those people” are never the same to their friends as they are to the help. Simone storms out with Alice right behind her, and when she sees Sam next in a few days they spat a bit about whether or not she’s spoiled before she and Sam dance to that doughboy classic, Til We Meet Again. I’m not made of stone, it’s really very affecting and sweet. She gives Sam half of the porcelain angel Francie gave her and keeps the other half with her.
For the rest of June and July and August, the girls are working quite hard and the front keeps advancing closer and closer to them. Simone is so caught up in her fretting about her brother and Sam that she doesn’t notice that Alice is coming down with something until she’s almost too ill to stand up. So Simone scoops her up and carries her bodily to the infirmary, sick with terror, where the nurses tell her that Alice has a very bad case of influenza. And the next day, Alice entreats her to write a letter to her family because Alice is too weak to write, and the day after that Alice dies. Again, I’m not made of stone! I cried! And I cried again when Simone writes to Alice’s family! God, it’s sad. And realistic.
A month or so after Alice’s death, they move some of the girls to the front where the fighting is fiercest. They’re involved in the battle of St-Mihiel, which is an Allied success, and in October they’re moved forward again to relay messages directly from the front lines. But in November, of course, the armistice is announced and the fighting is ended very suddenly—and although from our perspective, we tend to see the final few months of the war as a winding-down, it’s very true that to the actual participants, there was no such thing. Many, if not most, of the combatants were not aware of any peace talks going on, and the armistice came as a surprise—just as it does to Simone.
And consequently, they’re sent back to Paris, and Simone and the others find themselves a bit at sea without any real jobs to keep them busy. She occupies herself by looking for Will and Sam, interrogating every soldier she sees, but no one has even heard of them. She’s shipped home in mid-December, and her parents—and Will!—are there to greet her at the docks at her arrival! She’s overjoyed, but Will tells her that Sam was killed in one of the offensives. Her parents are alarmed at her depression over this, so her father tracks down the family that Sam claimed his mother worked for, and they tell him that the woman Sam claimed was his mother died in a fire many years ago. So Simone goes to see the address where Sam says he grew up—and it’s an orphanage.
Exhausted with loss and grief and heartbreak, Simone starts to believe that maybe Sam really is dead, and maybe he never told her anything that was truthful in the time they spent together. So she starts volunteering at the rehab hospital again in an effort to feel better about her broken heart. On her fourth day of volunteering, one of the women asks for help with a patient who’s refused to speak—and, of course, it is Sam. Simone throws away all her manners and good breeding and throws herself on him to kiss him and cry a bit, but Sam tells her that he didn’t make any effort to contact her because he was so ashamed of his wound. His wound that is a leg missing from the knee. Poor guy.
Simone bolts home to tell everyone, and Will is so thrilled that he goes that very night to see Sam, and Simone plans to go with her parents the next day—but her father pulls a lot of strings to get Sam taken to their house for Christmas, where Sam gives Simone the other part of her missing angel and they hang it on the tree together.
In the epilogue, we learn that Simone and Sam were married the next year once Sam was confident enough to dance with his prosthetic leg. Sam went to work for Will at the real-estate business, but the Depression brought a great deal of hardship to their family. Simone had three children, and she and Sam moved to Paris in their retirement years, and lived in Simone’s mother’s neighbourhood until their deaths.
Rating: A-. I didn’t intend to like this one as much as I actually did. Really! It was one of the later DA books, and I always thought of it was kind of hokey (given the Christmas-y theme, and so on) but it’s actually very sweet and romantic and sad in a lot of places. Levine’s first novel is a wonderful little story and charming without being cloying, and Simone is a lovely and well-realized character without falling into stereotypes. Very sweet.