Last spring marked the 75th anniversary of Liberation Day in the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by Nazi forces during World War II. The celebration had to be held virtually because of COVID-19 restrictions, but physical separation couldn’t dampen the joy expressed by generations of island dwellers as they remembered the heroic feats of survival that occurred so many years ago.
That resilience required an abundance of goodness, courage, and humanity, which are expressed in spades in Jenny Lecoat’s historical fiction debut based on the events of the occupation: “The Girl from the Channel Islands.” For Lecoat, the history is personal. She was born on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, and members of her family lived through the events she depicts in her novel. (Two were even deported to concentration camps.) Her deeply moving screenplay for the 2017 film “Another Mother’s Son” tells the story of her great-aunt, Louisa Gould, who secretly sheltered a Russian slave laborer after her son was killed in the war.
From the beginning of “The Girl from the Channel Islands,” Lecoat advances a narrative of optimism. “Outside the window, the strongest, brightest stars were beginning to push through the darkness,” she writes, foreshadowing the inner light of bravery that grew within island residents as they persevered through the occupation. One of those islanders is protagonist Hedwig “Hedy” Bercu, a Jewish woman from Vienna who escaped the Anschluss – only to find herself hiding in plain sight from the Nazis on Jersey as she reluctantly works as a translator for them. Supporting the enemy, even to ensure her continued safety, takes its toll.
“Each morning she watched as the trucks, filled with dead-eyed mercenaries, rumbled off to their construction sites to reinforce antitank walls and build new airport runways, knowing that she was now a part of it,” writes Lecoat. “Survival, it seemed, was an expensive business for the soul.”
Eventually, Hedy encounters Lieutenant Kurt Neumann, a sympathetic German officer. The two are drawn together despite their differences, and despite the fact that Hedy continues to hide her identity. Still, their unlikely romance is an antidote to the confining, inhumane rhythms of wartime life. And romance branches out into acts of resistance: Hedy steals petrol coupons and gives them to island doctors so that they can travel to patients. “It’s an atonement, for taking wages from the Krauts. My own personal mitzvah,” Hedy confesses.
And Hedy finds a sense of belonging. Her friends become her family, and their interactions provide a nourishing backdrop of support and goodwill. Hedy’s fellow Austrian escapee, a shy baker named Anton, is like a brother to her – though she’s less sure about his Jersey girlfriend, Dorothea Le Brocq, who Anton insists has “a heart of gold.” But it turns out there’s infinitely more to Dory than meets the eye, even though “the woman’s obsession with old movie magazines and endless chatter about hairstyles made for poor conversation.”
Lecoat provides generous descriptions of the island setting, and her dialogue captures the emotional nuances of each moment. Flashes of humor lighten the weighty plot. (Lecoat’s background as a comic likely helps with this.) Scenes featuring villains, meanwhile, produce visceral reactions of dismay.
As rumors of an Allied rescue attempt circulate, Hedy must go into hiding to survive. The plot intensifies, until it finally reaches a conclusion that is well worth the wait. “The Girl from the Channel Islands” sends a timely message of hope and underscores the incredible importance of embracing forgiveness and inclusivity.