top of page

War Changes Everything - an Editorial Review of "Alice's War"

Book Blurb:

Weymouth, England 1939

War changes everything. For grandson Martin, coming of age under the backdrop of World War II. For Sonja, the Jewish refugee he’s drawn to, who left her family in Germany only to face new dangers in England. And for Martin’s friend, Ellis, confronting a war similar to the one that drove his father to alcoholism.

Recently widowed, Alice must set aside her long-awaited chance to recreate her life on her own terms when the war places her two grandchildren in her care. She finds herself revisiting the tragedies she faced as a mother, as she navigates personal aspiration, loss, and the importance of family.

Alice's War is not a story of decorated air pilots or daring resistance fighters. It is instead a story of ordinary people facing fear and loss. As outside forces tear Alice’s family and community apart, she quietly gathers and reforms their sustaining bonds.

Set in the town of Weymouth against the grand backdrop of England’s Jurassic Coast and with a front-seat view of the unfolding drama, Alice’s War immerses the reader in a time unlike any in modern history.

Book Buy Link:

Author Bio:

When not writing, I spend my time hiking, gardening, photographing nature, and playing soccer. In addition to writing Alice's War and The Risk in Crossing Borders, I have published articles on promoting natural habitats within our personal landscapes. My wife and I live in the Seattle area.

Editorial Review:

The fact that we are now crusaders needn't blind us to the fact that for a very long time we have been, as Badger would say, echidnas. I can think of a hundred ways already in which the war has "brought us to our senses." But it oughtn't to need a war to make a nation paint its kerbstones white, carry rear-lamps on its bicycles, and give all its slum children a holiday in the country. And it oughtn't to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilization could have.” ['Mrs Miniver' by Jan Struther]

This quote from that admirable book depicting the British at War serves as an excellent introduction to 'Alice's War'. Thousands of readers are drawn to the historical fiction of the Second World War. This remains constant for very obvious reasons and there is no shortage of those writers only too happy and motivated and sufficiently skilled to provide the sufficient quantity and quality of reading materials to accommodate this need. It is indeed a heady and intoxicating menu, and there is no shortage of books that relate stirring tales of resistance and espionage, heroic tales of fighting against all the odds, heroism and bitter tragedy. With 'Alice's War' the writer William McClain offers the reader a markedly different slant on the subject. 'Alice's War' is positively brimming over with tales of the ordinary, of understated and unrecognised tales of personal heroism and sacrifice and the lives of very ordinary people living in the pleasant country market town and coastal port of Weymouth in the beautiful English County of Dorsetshire. It is a saga of a 'peoples' war' with a peculiarly quintessentially English tinge to it. It is also very beautifully crafted and of great charm. The portrait of Alice Standfield and of all the people within her particular orbit is drawn with great sensitivity and a remarkable insight into individual motivations, fears and hopes. 'Alice's War' is, in short, enticingly written and crafted. An engrossing book, despite its often seemingly prosaic nature and content; captivating, addictive and a joy and a pleasure to read!

The book begins in April 1939, before the War has even begun and takes the reader through all the long and difficult years of the War up to December 1945. We first meet the very recently widowed Alice Standfield, the eponymous heroine of the book, at the funeral of her husband Edgar, a former judge and a local pillar of society. With a deep sensitivity and understanding of character which is a central characteristic of the book throughout, McClain explores the emotions of this grandmother and highly sensitive member of a country elite for the first time. The very first two paragraphs of the book are a masterclass in how to write an opening. He continues:

''She had never been one for Ceremonies. She wondered if it was obvious to everyone that her heart was not part of the proceedings. They would think she hadn't loved Edgar, but she had. For almost forty years she had done her best to fulfil Edgar's expectations, centred her own life around his. She would miss him, yet she was not distraught. She knew now that eighteen had been too young to understand her own heart, let alone the heart of a stranger to whom she had pledged to devote her life...''

From the start, therefore, the reader is aware that in Alice Standfield, widow, we have a mature, intelligent and thoughtful woman so self aware that she views her husband's funeral as also an occasion from which she is also, apart from her own emotions, able to rationally observe and note. Of the actual funeral ceremony itself, ''She wanted space for herself, to assess what remained.'' This is not to say that Alice Standfield is any way cool and 'stand offish'; far from it. The heroine of this book is intensely observant, as well as rational, and brings her intense understanding of people and her deep compassion to bear upon all those who surround her, even to undeserved enemies such as the embittered and narrow minded Elizabeth Chambers, doyen and demoness of those especially English totems of the Village Hall Committee Meeting and the Parish Church Fete!

Alice Standfield has one remaining child [having lost two young children to diphtheria]. This is Henry, married to the bullying and overbearing Kathleen and occupying a relatively minor position at the Ministry of Transport. He has developed some of his father's more irritating and, to Alice, distressing characteristics; punctilious and a great believer in the correct form and of abiding by 'the rules'. They live in London with their three children, Leo, Martin and Irene. In fact, Martin is to play an increasingly significant role throughout 'Alice's War'. Through the eyes of Alice, McClain spares a brief and, typically, highly sympathetic and wry moment considering the plight of the second child: ''She knew it was natural for parents to bestow less attention to their second born, each milestone carrying the slight tarnish of familiarity. and then Irene, their only daughter, arrived. The six years between her and Martin confined her in perpetuity as the baby of the family. Yet, from Alice's perspective, Martin was the one who was overlooked in the push and shove of family love.'' The War, when finally it comes, brings profound changes. It brings restrictions to Alice at the very moment she had hoped to spread her wings a little and fly! It should be noted that Alice is a very keen bird spotter and talented artist and entertains a wish to publish a book with sketches on the subject of the birds she sees in and around the town of Weymouth, in the countryside and along her wild and beloved Jurassic coast. Alice and Martin make a renewed and very strong bond on the very day of the Funeral! Alice is desperate to get on with her new life: ''Like Elizabeth in the Bible, who in her old age was finally granted a child, Alice felt her time had, at last, come.'' One of the major disruptions the War brings is that her two youngest grandchildren, Martin, now fourteen, and Irene are evacuated to her home at 'Elm House' to avoid the danger of German bombing. With characteristic resignation, Alice determines to be as good and loving a grandmother as she can be at a time of sudden and new restrictions and the actual threat of invasion. In 1940, tragedy strikes the family when the Anderson Shelter in London [that Martin had helped to build] receives a direct hit in an air raid and the parents, Henry and Kathleen, are killed. The children are orphans and soon Leo, the eldest, will be absorbed into the Army. Here is Alice upon the news of her son's death:

''Alice hung up the telephone, but she didn't get up from the chair or clean up the brandy from the floor. She sat alone and wept. In the depth of the night, Elm House felt large and empty and silent as the tomb - except for the clock, its ticking magnified by the silence.''

On one of her solitary bird walking trips along the cliffs she chances upon a man whom she knows by sight, a sheep farmer and former veterinarian called Nathan Stone. He too is a keen fellow amateur ornithologist. He had been formerly married to a German and has attracted the censorious attention of the gossip laden Elizabeth Chambers [who is also the source of rumours that Alice's husband had been a 'Black shirt' - a member of the 'British Union of Fascists'] They strike up a close friendship that will last for the duration of the war - and beyond, it is to be hoped. He inducts her into the fellowship of the 'Dorchester Ornithological Society' [ membership four] to share her findings. When the war finally begins, Nathan persuades Alice to join the 'Observer Corps' . It sounds infinitely more interesting and rewarding for the war effort, she believes, than making sandwiches and they subsequently spend hours in each others' company, either in companionable silence or in long contemplative conversation as they monitor the air traffic overhead or else the flight and behaviour of birds: ''Alice found that being outdoors, facing wind and sea and broad horizons, provided space for free ranging felt natural to share their hopes and their fears...At other times, they left each other to their own thoughts. Alice often turned contemplative, there were few opportunities for reflection at home....She harboured doubts, doubts that she was reluctant to share with her more optimistic neighbours......'' It is following long and deep thought that Alice finally and regretfully declines a proposal of marriage made a full four years after they had first met! Nathan's sheep farm will prove to be a focal point and magnet to young Martin in his formative adolescence; partly due to the presence of the young Jewish refugee girl Sonja, an ethereal being who is a source of constant fascination to the young Martin. Martin discover his father's old bicycle and delights in exploring the environs of Weymouth. Irene, meanwhile, is also growing up; a distant and withdrawn child and a constant worry to Alice. The temporary and part time nature of his new school leaves Martin with time on his hands to explore. He spends much time going to the very top of 'Elm House' and surveying the world with his grandmother's borrowed binoculars, on one occasion ignoring the air raid warning and witnessing a savage bombing of the nearby docks at Portland Bill. In the course of his travels he also makes friends with a disreputable and slightly older boy called Ellis; an extraordinary and quick witted boy with a high degree of independence and opinion who inducts Martin in the rites of passage of cigarettes and pornographic magazines. It is, in fact, Martin who unwittingly forms the link between his friend and hero and the object of his interest and desire, Sonja; first encountered as a 'refugee' though in fact a servant at 'Walbridge Manor', the residence and stately home of the local [and very haughty] aristocratic Lady Walbridge. ''Lady Walbridge's charitable actions were always distant and detached in the manner that was expected of someone of her standing. Alice never sensed any hint of sentimentality from her distinguished neighbour.''

Although also attracted to the bubbly and bright personality of Lydia, the daughter of the formidable Elizabeth Chambers, Martin is drawn to the exotic nature of the young Jewish girl, an allure heightened by her infrequent comments and the foreign inflections of her English. This is a budding relationship that comes to a halt when she is suspected of a robbery of valuables from the Manor and is hauled off to an Internment Camp for enemy aliens, a place where continued anti Semitism results in her receiving an unsightly facial scar that Martin can never ignore thereafter. Ellis is also justifiably implicated and only the skilful string pulling of Alice Standfield with her husband's former colleagues saves him from prison. Like Martin's elder brother Leo, Ellis is absorbed into the military. In time Martin takes on vital war work at Nathan's sheep farm and attempts to renew his awkward and stilted relationship with Sonja; now working there as a Land Girl. In reply to Martin's hesitant and slightly clumsy query about her scar, Sonja's answer is blunt and moving: ''To the British, all Germans are the same, Nazis and Jews together - not problem. I was forced to live with Nazis.'' She looked directly at Martin, pointing to her scar. ''That is why I must leave my home. This is why my parents not allowed to leave with me. It is called hatred.'' All their subsequent encounters are awkward and stilted, not least a failed attempt at a first date - a trip to the Cinema to see 'The Maltese Falcon' that Sonja had not enjoyed! It had been Martin's first kiss with a girl, an awkward peck on the unblemished cheek of Sonja. His encounters with Lydia are far more promising - up to the point they are discovered together by her mother and she is frog marched away. The so called 'phoney war' becomes actual serious conflict and from their eyrie on the cliffs as members of the Observer Corps, Alice and Nathan witness the debacle of Dunkirk and the ever increasing enemy aircraft. Alice, throughout, strives to 'keep calm and carry on' in the fine old English tradition and 'muddle through'. She has never for a moment flagged in her good intent to her grandchildren and to all others she comes into contact with. It is with this sentiment in mind that she resolves to help the unhappy young girl after discovering her alone and weeping. Alice's concern and empathy is characteristic. In December 1941 comes the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and of American entry into the war. The War had suddenly become bigger! The eventual arrival of Americans in this quintessentially English town of Weymouth will have a profound effect on everyone, not least Alice Standfield and the flighty and exuberant Lydia Chambers.

In time young Martin, like Ellis and his brother Leo and thousands of others, is swept up by the war. He disappears into training camp and experiences the usual loneliness, appalling food and spite from bullying non commissioned officers. He makes two good friends and loses one of them soon after they arrive in France after the Invasion. There have been a few letters from Sonja. Lydia, on the other hand, is a frequent and enthusiastic correspondent. With the army, Martin heads inland and eastwards, becomes involved in sporadic bitter fighting and is left with the experience of having killed! McClain places the reader inside Martin's head at this hard moment of realisation:

''Then it hit him that he had killed another human being. In fact he had killed seven people. Now that they were dead, they suddenly seemed more human. They had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They had probably grown up in circumstances not terribly different from Martin's. Probably some of them - maybe most of them - didn't want to be fighting this war. And now, their short lives were over. He had ended them.''

In fact, much of Martin's remaining service, through France, the Lowlands and into Germany itself, is spent in the capacity of a driver. His developed aptitude with engines and basic mechanics and an innate skill at navigation and orienteering has stood him in fine stead! He has one final horror to endure, an experience that will haunt him forever, the liberation of the camp at Bergen -Belsen! He is profoundly affected by this and it alters profoundly his view of and attitude to Sonja and her own personal tragedy! In Weymouth, Alice entices her shy and reclusive grand daughter out on long and protracted walks in the country in search of rare birds. Irene's ''cheerful disposition had disappeared right along with her parents, as if they had taken it with them as a souvenir.'' Of her two male grandsons, she knows little. Leo has been reported missing in Italy and the news of Martin is sparse and sporadic. Alice feels very alone: ''The silence was complete except for the incessant ticking of the grandfather clock, the clock that had never belonged to her. Just like Elm House, it was part of Edgar's family. But Edgar's family were all dead, and Elm House felt like their mausoleum. She had been given four glorious months between Edgar's passing and the start of war. She looked imploringly at the clock. Is that all the time you've allotted me? The clock remained resolute.''

The tumultuous arrival of the Americans and the frenzy of the preparations for the invasion of Normandy bring the development for Alice of a fond and emotional friendship with a shy American Major named Peter Gurin, a gentle former Engineer from Ohio with a taste for birdwatching and, for Lydia, an intense, doomed and passionate love for a black serviceman from Chicago, Anthony Lewis; a University graduate with a desire to teach literature. For both Lydia [now a nurse] and Anthony this proves to be very much a case of forbidden love! They are bound to attract attention and disapproval wherever they go: ''As the weather improved, they started meeting up in the countryside, taking long walks along lonely treks and talking about everything and anything. The found common ground in the boundaries they pushed against. For Anthony, it was racism. Racism packed into ships and carried across the Atlantic by his fellow servicemen. For Lydia, it was a mother who wanted control over every action, and worse, every thought.'' This was the same mother who at public meetings casually attempted to denounce people she believed to be spies, including Nathan Stone, and who demanded that the civil authorities uphold the segregation policies applied in the United States over black servicemen serving in the United Kingdom! Inevitably, she discovers her daughter's illicit love affair. There is a blazing row, Lydia packs a suitcase and storms out, the rift utter and complete, and seeks shelter at Elm House. Alice naturally gives the girl refuge and also, typically, finds it in her heart to both forgive and understand Lydia's mother! The arrival of Lydia in the household has a very beneficial effect on the reclusive Irene.

'Alice's War' is deceptively long and is packed with strands and incidents. It is a vivid account of the long civilian war and will summon memories from those who still remember it. A lot happens in nearly six years of total war; and a lot changes. The book is full of extremely shrewd and exquisitely empathic character studies and comes to an end in December 1945 with Alice contemplating the forthcoming Christmas celebrations and an Elm House packed to the rafters with a motley collection of inhabitants, with more expected for the Celebrations to come. She decides that it is at last, finally, her home. Both Martin and Leo are back, the former bustling with energy and self confidence that Alice takes great personal pride in, and the latter haunted and hollowed out by terrible wartime experiences and forming an unlikely and shy and tentative friendship with a relative he hadn't known that he had! A person that Alice had first really encountered on V.E. Day. In the New Year, Martin will go to University to study Electrical Engineering, partly in honour of a dead comrade, and Lydia to study Nursing. Irene has discovered boys! There is an equally happy ending for both Sonja and Ellis. The redoubtable and admirable Alice Standfield reviews her ' family of misfits' and takes great and justifiable pride in what she sees, for much of it is a result of her gentle, thoughtful and diplomatic nurturing. And who knows what the future might hold? Why, she might even find time to finish her book!

To quote again [if this might be permitted] from the truly excellent 'Mrs Miniver' by Jan Struther, an equally shrewd and beautifully well written book which serves also at times to mirror the life of Alice Standfield and the inhabitants of Elm House: ''Mrs Miniver put the last sheet back on top of the others and clipped them all together again. No, she could not possibly throw them away; they contained too much of her life. Besides, however clear one's memories seemed to be, it did no harm to polish them up from time to time. One is what one remembers: no more, no less.'' The often episodic nature and quality of 'Alice's War' suggests that, apart from being a very fine book in its own right, it might make for a very watchable television series. This reviewer thanks the author for an enthralling and deeply moving family saga of ordinary people attempting to pursue their ordinary lives - the very epitome of the 'Britishness' of 'carrying on' - in very extraordinary times!


Alice's War” by William McClain receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



To have your historical novel editorially reviewed and/or enter the HFC Book of the Year contest, please go to


bottom of page