Book Review: ‘Miss Graham’s War’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.

Book Cover Miss Graham’s War, a novel by Celia Rees

Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.

The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.

 For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water.  Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.

Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.

A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get.  Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.

Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream.  In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven.  Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen.  Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).

The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.

It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.

A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.

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Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.

Cover design for Witch Child by Celia Rees – 20th Anniversary edition

Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.

Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.

The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.

As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.

I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.

I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.

A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.