Short story writer Peter Ho Davies’ debut novel got me thinking about the meaning of surrender, and the many different forms that it might take. In one fashion or another, each of the characters in The Welsh Girl surrenders during the course of the novel, but the nature of those capitulations varies greatly from one to the next.
The Welsh Girl is set in a small village in the mountains of Wales in the period between the summer and fall of 1944, after the Allied invasion of Europe. Like many rural communities, life centers around pubs, and in this story the pub that employs 17-year old Esther that becomes the focal point.
The pub is a gathering place for both nationalistic Welsh and a unit of English engineers working outside the town, but relations between the two groups are tense at best. Esther, who serves as a bridge between the two groups, is attracted to one of the soldiers, but he rapes her and leaves her behind when his unit is transferred. When she finds herself pregnant, she gives up thoughts of leaving the small town that she’s always longed to escape. Is that surrender?
The real purpose of the English building project camp is soon revealed, to the chagrin of the Welsh: it is to be a prisoner of war camp for Germans captured during the invasion of Europe. Karsten, a young English-speaking man who had only recently been promoted to sergeant, is one of those who surrendered. A machine-gunner stationed above the beach at Normandy, his bunker was directly hit and one of the crew members killed. With his gun out of commission, did his responsibility for the two survivors under his command call for surrender?
The POWs themselves are divided between those who ‘surrendered’ and those who were ‘captured’, with ridicule and ostracism attending the first. Men go to great lengths to create narratives that allow them to claim the honor of the second. The ‘captured’ are most fanatically represented by the crew of a submarine caught on the surface – but how does their inability to fight against a superior ship differ from Karsten’s motive for surrender?
A third strand of the story takes place in the fall of 1944, but its narration is interspersed with the summer ’44 events. Captain Rotherham, a German who always thought of himself as Lutheran despite his Jewish father, is now serving as an interrogator for the British. At this late date, he is assigned to question Rudolf Hess, the high-ranking Nazi who flew to England under murky circumstances and was captured. Rotherham fled to England when it finally became apparent to him that he and every other person remotely considered Jewish was targeted for attacks. Was Rotherham’s flight to England a form of surrender? Was Hess’s?
The same question could be asked about the Welsh villagers, whose turbulent history with the English is buried by their economic need for English money, and about the refugee boy living with Esther and her father. At what point does accepting reality become surrender? Is surrender a mental condition, or merely physical?
This is not a theme that the publishers promote in their discussion guide, but it is one that interests me in light of Louis Zamperini’s story in Unbroken. If anyone has thoughts on the topic, I hope you’ll share them.
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