It’s Mother’s Day, so I want to blog about the end of World War II in Europe… obviously. No, it’s just that we did observe the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, by going into DC to have planes fly over us, an exciting aerial display for which I will borrow CNN’s photo:
It was fun to see all those lovingly preserved aircraft do their thing, and to think about what technological breakthroughs they were at the time (and Mustangs are still really fast, when they go right over you), and about the good they did along with the inevitable damage they caused. I don’t think this is something we’re going to stop celebrating by the 100th anniversary, even when all the veterans are gone and the planes just can’t get up there any longer. It’s thrilling to hear and read and watch war stories: the reverberation of engines and the shock of bombs and the smoke trailing from the lost heroes. Writing a war story, particularly one about this war, was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.
It’s no accident, though, that Time Goes By takes place mostly off the battlefield, at least if one defines “battlefield” as a place of active combat between uniformed foes. George takes part in a massive civilian rescue of retreating soldiers; Olivia becomes a refugee; the planes that bomb them fly away and they’re left to comfort the wounded. Other characters deal with siege and starvation, stolen livelihoods, frustrated attempts at resistance, death and loss and the urge to find something normal and beautiful in the midst of chaos. War is always a complicated picture, panoramic and full of tiny details, and for me the most interesting approach is to burrow down into the corners, finding the sorrow and the shame and the view of high-flying glory as seen from below. Most people who fight wars don’t salute or get saluted; some of them aren’t even working in factories or planting victory gardens or blending in as spies. Most of them are just surviving and trying to do what they can. Or taking unfair advantage of the situation and making money. Or getting trampled.
Or having children, and caring for them. Next year on Mother’s Day I’ll get to post something about Not Time’s Fool, which is my book about families and stories – but all my books are about families, and Time Goes By is no exception, even if the characters are relatively sensible about actually reproducing in the middle of a war; and even if Geneviève Dumesnil is not the world’s best mother, she is still making a mother’s decisions under difficult circumstances. And when I think about V-E Day, it’s not about speeches and signatures and displays of military might, but about what Geneviève and Philippe and Pierre and Marit and the others might have thought and felt about the end of a conflict and the beginning of the rest of their lives. (I have ideas about what happened to all of them, but I’ll let readers speculate for themselves.) This was a book about the early part of a war; perhaps someday I’ll write one about war’s ending.
The great thing about using time travel in this context is that having characters who know how things turn out (even if they’re hazy on the details, not having had time to study up) emphasizes how much those who belong to the period are mired in the present (not that the time travelers aren’t as well, just that “present” is more complicated for them). It’s easy to look back and say, “Well, at least you’re going to win” (or not, depending on whose perspective you’re using), and hard to remember that they truly didn’t know. Of course we recognize uncertainty, intellectually, but it’s easier to feel it when there’s someone there reminding us of it, waving their own certainty like an increasingly-tattered banner. And the other thing that makes the possibility of defeat and death poignant is watching people live and do ordinary things, while the planes scream by overhead. Which makes war stories not that different from any other kind of story, really. Just that some Mustangs are quieter and more symbolic than others.