Welcome to Thursday! Today, I am featuring a terrific historical read by Liz Trenow called The Last Telegram. This book is set during the World War II years of 1938-1945. It is a remarkable story about a young woman forced to step in an run her family's historic silk mill. The mill survives during the war thanks to a contract to produce silk parachutes for the airmen. It is a story of courage, love, heartache and loss. If you enjoy good historical fiction, especially books set during World War II, I would recommend you check out this book. I am pleased to welcome Liz here today to share a bit more about the real life inspirations for her novel. I love that she based her novel on real life events! First, let me tell you a bit more about Liz:
I was born and brought up in a house next to the family silk mill. My father, and then my brother, went to work each day at the mill, so silk played a large part in my early life, even though I didn’t really appreciate that at the time. As a student I did a range of holiday jobs in the mill but, like Lily in The Last Telegram, the business held no real romance for me. What I really wanted was to become a journalist so, after a few years teaching skiing in Canada, that is what I became. I worked in news and features for local and regional newspapers, as a news journalist for local radio and regional television, and at BBC Broadcasting House and Television Centre, before leaving to work in PR which had much more family-friendly working hours! See Liz's full bio on her website. You can also find Liz on her blog.
Here is Liz to tell you the real life inspirations for her novel:
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ For me, the answer was obvious. I had to write about silk.
My family have been silk weavers for nearly three hundred years. Yet, as a child, I had taken little notice of the silk mill next door to our home in Sudbury, Suffolk. It was where our father – the ninth generation of managing directors – went to work: a jumble of industrial buildings next to the railway line, just beyond the garden wall. The closest we got to silk were the luminously beautiful gowns my mother would don before sweeping off to some grand event in a haze of Chanel No 5, leaving us, distinctly unimpressed, with a baby sitter.
I was too young to enjoy the excitement of the Coronation, for which the mill had woven the Queen’s gown, but when Princess Anne chose Sudbury silk for her wedding dress, and came to visit the mill where it was woven, I began to appreciate what a special kind of place it was (much later, they also wove Princess Diana’s wedding dress). Later, during brief holiday jobs, I gained more understanding of the business and its complexities: the fearsome roar of the looms, the calm of the design room, and the dexterity and skill of the weavers.
It is many decades later, after a long career in journalism and when my two daughters had left home, that I had the time and head space to tackle what I had always seen as my personal ‘Everest’, of writing a novel.
It was also around this time that I began to have conversations with my father, then in his nineties and growing frail. He told me how, in 1938, when war looked inevitable and the market for luxury fabrics was certain to disappear, the mill had signed contracts to weave silk for surgical dressings (it has strong antiseptic properties), electrical insulation (plastics weren’t yet good enough) and ‘escape and evasion maps’ that were secretly sewn inside airmen’s jackets, should they be shot down over enemy territory. But the largest contract of all was for parachute silk.
Although weaving parachute silk was straightforward enough, the finished fabric had to be perfect. Too loose, and the air flows through too quickly, with obvious consequences; too tight, and the canopy fails to open properly. It was rigorously tested: getting the silk right and delivering it on time was critical, and the raw yarn, which was issued by the Ministry of Supply, was increasingly scarce. The factory worked day and night, to fulfill demand. I came to understand, with growing respect, what pressure they had been under, and how hard they had worked for the war effort. I also realised what a fascinating plot line it would make for a novel.
My father told me another remarkable story. The family had become increasingly concerned about the plight of their many Jewish friends and business colleagues in Europe, so they decided to sponsor five German Jewish ‘Kindertransport’ boys to work at the silk mill. All went well until 1940 when, in the face of rampant ‘spy fever’, these five young men, along with thousands of other ‘enemy aliens’, were interned by the authorities. They were sent on a grueling three month voyage on the infamously over-crowded troopship ‘Dunera’, and incarcerated in the Australian desert at Hay Camp.
After the scandal emerged, the British government relented and gave the internees their passage home in return for signing up to fight for the Allies. One of the boys, named Kurt, was determined to get back to Suffolk because he had fallen in love with a girl at the Sudbury Post Office. After fighting in the jungles of Burma, he finally returned to work at the mill and married his sweetheart. This wonderfully romantic story inspired one of my main characters.
Around the same time I accompanied my father to a Weavers’ Company dinner. Making conversation with my neighbor at the table, I mentioned that I was writing a story about parachute silk. He then told me about the extraordinary top secret mission undertaken by his grandfather, a yarn merchant. At the height of the war he was sent to Syria and Lebanon, via flying boat up the Nile and along the coast of North Africa, to encourage small hill farmers to increase their production of raw silk for export to Britain, for parachutes. Such a remarkable tale cried out to be included in my novel.
Now I had my setting and my romantic hero, as well as quite a few interesting sub-plots and side-characters, but they were all men. As the mother of two daughters, I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel in which a woman finds her place in the world of work on equal terms with men and, as yet, I had no heroine. Lily Verner, the central character and narrator of The Last Telegram, has no real-life counterpart, although she owes a debt to several strong women in my family. Like me, she starts off with no interest in becoming a silk weaver. Unlike me, she becomes the first woman managing director of the family business (and, to date, the last!).
Basing a novel too closely on people and events from family history has its pitfalls. There is no drama without complex, flawed and sometimes plain evil characters who do bad things and tell lies; without events that go horribly wrong, and may even have terrible consequences. I had to make a conscious effort to detach the story from reality, to allow plot lines to develop which would have been unthinkable, events which never happened and characters who are weak and make very human errors. In other words, to start writing fiction.
Even though the silk company, the plot and all of the characters in The Last Telegram are all entirely fictional, they were inspired by real people and events, and for that reason it feels very personal to me. I am intensely proud to be part of a silk family and its unique heritage. That silk lies at the heart of my story: its extraordinary qualities, its unique sweet, nutty aroma, and the careful, complex processes that convert a dull caterpillar filament thinner than a hair into the most lustrous and luxurious of all fabrics. It’s like the ancient alchemy of turning base metal into gold.
Today’s company, now managed by my nephew, is still going strong in the same mill on the same site next door to our former family home in the same small Suffolk market town, weaving luxury fabrics prized by customers all over the world for their design, quality and the ‘made in Britain’ history which goes back three hundred years.
Most of all, though, I am proud of my father and tens of thousands of others for their tireless work behind the scenes in the lesser-known aspects of the ‘home front’, playing a critical role in helping to keep our country safe during those perilous times. Their lives are not commemorated and they won no medals, but I offer The Last Telegram as a small tribute to all those remarkable men and women who stories are otherwise untold.
The Last Telegram was published by Sourcebooks on 4 April 2013. It was published in the UK in 2012 and has been in the Amazon e-book best seller list for three months. It is also being published in translation in Germany. If you want to find out more about me and my books, please go visit my website.
Thanks so much Liz for that informative post. I especially enjoyed learning the back story and inspiration for your story. I am sure your father was an amazing man! I appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us and provide pictures as well.
For all of you lucky U.S. residents I am able to offer you a chance to win a copy of Liz's debut novel: The Last Telegram, courtesy of the fine folks at Sourcebooks. Please fill out the Rafflecopter to enter. Good Luck!a Rafflecopter giveaway
Here is my review:
The Last Telegram by Liz Trenow
Decades ago, as Nazi planes dominated the British sky, eighteen-year-old Lily Verner made a terrible mistake. She’s tried for decades to forget, but now an unexpected event pulls her back to the 1940s British countryside. She finds herself remembering the brilliant, lustrous colors of the silk she helped to weave at her family’s mill, the relentless pressure of the worsening war, and the kind of heartbreaking loss that stops time.
In this evocative novel of love and consequences, Lily finally confronts the disastrous decision that has haunted her all these years. Paperback, 368 pages Published April 2nd 2013 by Sourcebooks Landmark (first published September 13th 2012)
Four and a half stars: A touching tale of love and loss during World War II.
Lily is eighteen and excited to begin the next phase of her life. She has big plans to move to Geneva and attend school, but all of her dreams are crushed when the impending war creeps closer and closer to home. Her father sits her down and informs her that due to the dangers abroad she will be staying home in England for the time being. Lily will work as an apprentice in the family's historic silk mill. Soon her days are busy filled with learning everything she can about the silk industry. Lily becomes an expert weaver and finds that she actually loves working in the mill. All too soon, war erupts in England and Lily's life is forever shattered. She grows up fast, endures tragedy and loses her heart. The pressures at the mill mount as they work tirelessly to produce the perfect silk for parachutes. One error could cause a pilot his life. With her back against the wall, Lily makes a poor decision that will later come back to haunt her for the rest of her life.........
What I Liked:
- World War II is one of my favorite historic eras as I always love to see how the world was during my grandparents' youth. It never ceases to amaze me all that this generation endured with war, loss and difficult living conditions. Once again, after another gripping and informative war book, I am deeply grateful for all the sacrifice that this generation made on our behalf to ensure our freedom and way of life. If you are unfamiliar with the World War II era and would like to know more, The Last Telegram is a book I can recommend. It tells the story of a young eighteen year old girl, who like many women during that time, is forced to step into the shoes of man and run the family silk business. There is plenty of hardship, tragedy, love and loss as the war continues to ravage the world. This book brings you face to face with many of the harsh conditions that came with the war. If you love historic fiction, read this.
- Lily is an amazing young woman. The book opens with her as an eighty year old woman, who has just buried her husband. When her granddaughter uncovers an old locked suitcase buried deep within her closet, a flood of memories comes back and we learn about Lily's great love, and experience her life during the war. It is a poignant story, one that tugged at my heartstrings. Lily makes one quick decision to keep the mill churning out the silk. Her desperate choice later comes back to haunt her with heartbreaking consequences and we learn Lily's torturous secret. I absolutely loved reading Lily's story and I was once again reminded of just how courageous women were during the war years. Imagine sending your brother, husband, son or lover off to war and then waiting endless agonizing weeks for a letter saying he is safe. Hoping that the dreaded telegram never arrives at your door. These women lived with the sick fear of not knowing from day to day if their loved ones were safe. Yet, they didn't let that stop them. These remarkable women stepped up and took up the jobs that were vacated by the soldiers. The efforts of all the women during the war, later paved the way for all of us women today to enter the work force. We owe all of these women and men a huge debt. The Last Telegram brings forth the story of a couple of these courageous women.
- I especially enjoyed learning about the silk industry. My knowledge on silk production is very scant so I really liked all the information on how silk is produced. I was fascinated to learn about how some of the silk mills were contracted to churn out parachutes for the airmen. There was an exact science to the parachutes, and if it wasn't just right, pilots could die. I honestly had no idea that silk was so strong and versatile.
And The Not So Much:
- I was a bit disappointed that after all the detail and revelations of Lily's life during the war, that the book jumps ahead back to the present at the end of the war and from that point everything is quickly glossed over as to what happened to Lily in all the years after the war. I wished that there had been just a bit more on how she picked up the pieces, eventually married and had a family. I think just because I had become so invested in her character that I was sad that I didn't get the full picture on her life after. I gathered she was happy, but it doesn't really say.
- I was also frustrated that there wasn't more information on what happened to Lily's brother John and his wife Vera who was Lily's best friend. I was curious about what happened to him during the war. There are small hints here and there during the book, and I kept expecting that after the war ended I would get the full picture, but that never happens. There is only a small paragraph discussing John at the end. I don't know much about the German Prisoner of War Camps and I was hoping to learn a bit more.
- The silk mill kept producing silk after the war, and Lily's son eventually took over the business from his mother, but once again I wanted more. What happened to the silk industry after the war? Did it take a long time to recover? How has the silk industry transformed since then?
- I liked that this book featured a young lady who was a lesbian, but there isn't much detail on her life. I wondered what life was like for someone back then who was gay. I am certain that things were difficult to say the least. I had hoped that we get a bit more insight on this woman's life, but alas it doesn't happen.
The Last Telegram was a wonderful historical read that sweeps you back to England during the war years. My heart ached for the women as war ravaged through their lives, stealing their loved ones and destroying their world. I can't even imagine what it would have been like to live through the frightening bomb raids. This book brings forth the story of a young woman struggling to stay afloat during the war. If you are a fan of historical fiction, especially set during World War II, I would recommend this book to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
"I send up a silent prayer that she will never know the dreary fear of war, when all normal life is suspended, when the impossible becomes ordinary, when every decision seems to be a matter of life or death, when good-byes are often for good. It tends to take the shine off you."
"When Father finally persuaded me to hang up my pith helmet and join the yarn trade, I discovered it was surprisingly interesting. We all consider what we grow up with to be much more mundane than it really is."
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this review.