The Montmaray Journals:
A Brief History of Montmaray (Book I)
The FitzOsbornes in Exile (Book II)
The FitzOsbornes at War (Book III)
When I was researching war novels targeted at the Young Adult audience, I came across Australian author Michelle Cooper's The Montmaray Journals -- and I suspected, quite correctly, that they would be just the sort of thing I like. A tumultuous, dramatic time period, an eccentric family, strong female characters, action, adventure and political intrigue: yes, please.
World War II provides an endlessly fascinating canvas for fiction, and this trilogy of novels set during the period of 1936-1944 covers far more ground than most. This is not just a portrait; it's a vast landscape, but always with Sophia (the narrator) and her family in the foreground. If your historical knowledge is a bit sketchy, or if you were taught that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you will be particularly (and delightfully) enlightened.
The first novel begins on a tiny island called Montmaray in the Bay of Biscay. The Montmaravian Royal Family has been reduced to King John (who has never recovered from losing his entire regiment to World War I), his daughter Veronica (passionate about history and politics) and Toby, Sophia and Henry (Henrietta) -- their orphaned cousins. Rebecca, the housekeeper, and her son Simon are also central to the plot. The author has an ingenious way of involving this miniature and seemingly irrelevant kingdom in the churning political sea of the mid 1930s. The Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe research and the League of Nations are all plot-points involving Mortmaray and its young royal family -- whilst also giving rich historical context to the events leading up to World War II. The best bit is that Cooper is never guilty of info-dumping. Instead, she sprinkles and folds her historical facts into a cracking good story.
There has been a strong trend for blending "historical fact and imaginative fiction" (as Cooper describes it in her Author's Note), and I am all for it. Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire used the same strategy and they are amongst my favourite war novels of all time. Like The Montmaray Journals, they are epistolary novels: told through a series of diary entries, they create both an intimate, confiding tone and a particularly suspenseful way of shaping a story. The other obvious similarity between these novels is the way that young women are at the forefront of the action -- not just because they narrate the story, but because they are actively engaged in their own "war" stories. When I was an adolescent, we only had Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl -- also a wonderful book, but undeniably a more passive point of view.
In England, in November, you can see the distinctive red poppies everywhere. We all have our own way of honouring Remembrance Day, but my recommendation is to immerse yourself in a good war novel -- or three of them, as is the case with The Montmaray Journals.
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