SPAIN BOOK REVIEW SERIES – MAY: ‘Spanish Crossings’ by John Simmons

Spanish Crossings is an epic tale of love, politics and conflict, with the yearning but elusive possibility of redemption. A woman’s life has been cast in shadow by her connection to the Spanish Civil War. We meet Lorna in Spain, 1937 as she falls in love with Harry, a member of the International Brigade who had been at Guernica when it was bombed. Harry is then killed in the fighting and Lorna fears she might have lost her best chance of happiness. Can she fill the void created by Harry’s death by helping the child refugees of the conflict? She finds a particular connection to one boy, Pepe, and as he grows up below the radar of the authorities in England their lives become increasingly intertwined. But can Lorna rely on Pepe as he remains deeply pulled towards the homeland and family that have been placed beyond his reach? Coming through the war, then the post-war rebuilding, Lorna and Pepe’s relationship will be tested by their tragic and emotive history.

cover and blurb via amazon 

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Having written a string of Spanish Civil War novels, and read countless more, my enthusiasm is beginning to wane at times (having said that, I plan to write plenty more). To hold my interest, an author needs to come up with a new angle, especially when it comes to the International Brigades, who get far more books written about them than the forgotten local heroes of the war. So thank you to John Simmons, who has tried something outside the usual storyline and predictable ending.

Lorna is fairly typical young woman of her time who works in London. Lorna has a lover, Harry, who volunteers to fight in Spain while his country stands idly by. Only Harry goes and gets killed at Guernica. The pain is real for Lorna, who loses someone in the worst way, killed and largely forgotten in a war his country won’t recognise. Of course, Lorna’s experience isn’t a rare one during the Spanish Civil War, but how she learns to cope is unique. Lorna works at a law firm, which is working with Spanish refugee children.

Pepe has been shipped to England, as were thousands of Basque children during the war, in an attempt to keep them safe as the fascists invaded and destroyed their own country. Lorna ‘adopts’ Pepe, and how Lorna learns to live with Harry’s loss is entwined with how Pepe copes with being sent from the Basque Country and his family left to their fate.

Lorna has been torn from a loved one killed in hell, and Pepe longs for his homeland, the hell which killed Harry. But Pepe is an innocent bystander in this mess, and Lorna’s friendship might just be the only way to save them both. The children of the Basque country became foreigners a country that doesn’t fully understand the complexity or the horror that is happening in Spain, and life in London in the late 1930’s is described beautifully without the usual clichés.

This book allows people to feel what it would have been like for all the Lorna’s and Pepe’s of the age, and the realities of having to cope in a world sinking into fascism. There are plenty of lessons to learn that could be just as meaningful for 2018 as the 1930’s.

From the ship which took 4,000 people to England (when it should have taken about 800), to pre-war London, the bombings of WWII, and beyond is shared by Lorna, the book capped by moments told by Lorna’s son at either end.  Happiness is not simple or attainable for everyone, and what it means to heal and be happy again is different for every person. Lorna and Pepe are a shining glimpse to a time when life and death, reality and art, truth, lies and propaganda, love, friendship and home all meant different things.  Thank you to John Simmons, for a refreshing take on a classic story.

 

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW – APRIL: ‘Albi’ by Hilary Shepherd

A poignant, compassionate glimpse into the life of a child caught in a country at war with itself

Albi is nine years old when Franco’s soldiers arrive in the village and his life begins to change in confusing ways. It’s not clear quite who should be trusted and who should not. Some neighbours disappear not to be seen again, others are hidden from view in cellars and stables – like his brother, Manolo, who left long ago to join the resistance. Albi is charged with shepherding not just his own sheep, but also those of El Ciego who sends him on errands requiring a good memory and the ability to keep his mouth shut at all times.

Alberto, at 88, is haunted by what he did and what he may or may not have said. And then the daughter of his old friend Carlos turns up wanting stories of old times. Albi’s day of reckoning may be at hand…

cover and blurb via Honno Press

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Here we are – yet another Spanish Civil War book, which alternates between present day and the 1930’s. All I can say is – yay! I’ve written three of these myself, so I’m always pleased to find another one, but this one is different to many I have stumbled across.

The book starts in present time, where Alberto has just been to a funeral, of his friend, Carlos, who grew up with Alberto in rural Aragon. The remembrance of his childhood friend takes Alberto back to the time where he was known as Albi, only aged nine, and the memories he still hasn’t managed to shake.

It’s September 1938, and Republican Aragon is being eaten up by Nationalist rule. Not a story about the frontline, but rather this book takes us into the lives of those who lived during the war under their new fascist rulers, and the reality that they faced in the uproar of the civil war. Poor Albi is only a boy, and his parents, three sisters and his senile grandmother are forced to live under the Guardia soldiers who have occupied their town. Albi’s bother Manolo was gone off with the Republican army and is already a ghost in Albi’s life. Things start hard and frightening for Alibi, adjusting to soldiers everywhere, curfews in place, and odd screaming echoing, but the adults in Albi’s life won’t share anything with him. Albi herds sheep for his disabled father, but whisperings in his house start leading to a slow demise for Albi as his family falls apart with illnesses, hushed up mysteries, secret weddings, and daring daybreak escapes.

Albi and Carlos are kids caught in a real disaster destroying their country. But Albi’s life takes a dangerous turn when he starts passing messages and spending time with Mena, a woman from Valencia who stands out, and  Mena is not one to sit back as war changes their country. The marquis are in the Aragonese hillside, rebel fighters prepared to take on Francoist soldiers, regardless of the cost.

Albi’s trips to see Mena lead him to a moment in the war he cannot forget, not even in 2017 when Alberto’s story has caught the attention of people making a show about the war. While Carlos’ granddaughter is telling the stories she was told, Albi is the one with the real truth, the truth Carlos didn’t know or share. Death came to Albi’s village and he is the only witness who knows the truth, which haunts his dreams nearly 80 years on. But is 80 years enough for Alberto to be ready to tell the whole truth?

Many thanks should be given to the author, as Shepherd has written a book about those who tend to get forgotten. While I write the weekly updates about the war and major battles, it is people in the cities and villages already ‘conquered’ who get forgotten about, who had to live under the cruel rule of their new leaders. Shepherd has told that story through the eyes of a child, who doesn’t take sides, as his innocence will be destroyed either way. The doesn’t dwell on detail and accurately gives the point of view of a child, a messy and confused state in a world which wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Albi is available April 19.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 82-85: 80 Years Since the Battle of Teruel, February 1938

February  7

In the last calvary charge of modern warfare, the Nationalists attack Teruel from the north, while Republican forces are centred in the south of the town.  The Nationalists launch an attack along the Alfambra river north of Teruel, a front-line thirty kilometres long with 100,000 men and 500 guns. This massive charge in an undefended area means the Nationalists make it through the front-lines and into Teruel itself. The Republicans who can, run for their lives, scattered out in every direction to hide or be slaughtered. Generals Yague and Aranada consider this their moment of victory in the Teruel battle.

the leftovers of Teruel town itself

February 18

Many Republcians are still in hiding in the Teruel area, and Aranda and Yague have to ensure the town is cut off completely from any further reinforcements reaching the surrounding areas. Anyone left alive not on the Nationalist side must be pulled out of their hiding places and killed. Since the Alfambra charge, the Republicans have lost more than 22,000 men, including 7,000 prisoners, and the Nationalists have claimed an area of 1300 square kilometres around Teruel.

Republicans defenders in Teruel before their capture

February 20

The road from Teruel east to Valencia is destroyed, cutting the area off from the relatively safe Republican city. No one can reach Teruel or surrounding villages and areas, as all mountains and roads are Nationalist front-lines. General Saravia for the Republicans orders a total retreat of all Republicans and International Brigades from this lower Aragon area. Some 14,500 men are still trapped in the new Nationalist zone and have no chance to be rescued or have reinforcements fight their way in to help them in battle.

civilians fleeing the Teruel region

February 22

Well known Communist leader El Campesino (Valentín González González), manages to break through Nationalist lines and escape, where he claims he was left by other Communist leaders to die. The Nationalists now have all of the Teruel region to themselves, and declare victory. Their prize is around 10,000 Republican bodies strewn through the town itself. It is estimated that around 85,000 Republicans have been killed, and around 57,000 Nationalists are dead. 

The Nationalists, though battered, can quickly resupply men in the area, thanks to taking the massive factories in the Basque country the year before. But the Republicans have lost the bulk of their men and all of their airforce has been destroyed and cannot be replaced. Not only that but Republican morale has fallen desperately, and now they have no towns or areas in which they occupy to keep Valencia or Barcelona safe from the ever-increasing Nationalists. Franco is ready to begin the new Aragon offensive, to push through to the eastern coast and crush these two cities.

February 25

Any remaining Republicans, Communists and International Brigades left alive in Aragon huddle to form a front line along the bank of the Alfambra river, about 40 kilometres north of the Teruel town itself. As the Nationalists prepare for the upcoming Aragon offensive, these men have no plans or artillery to aid them.
International Brigades after seeking safety north of Teruel

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII’ by Seamus O’Caellaigh

Henry VIII lived for 55 years and had many health issues, particularly towards the end of his reign.

In Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain, historian Seamus O’Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry’s reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry’s physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments.

Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents, this book is a treat for the eyes and is full of information for those with a love of all things Tudor. Each illness and accident has been given its own section in chronological order, including first-hand accounts, descriptions of the treatments and photographic recreations of the treatment and ingredients.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The title doesn’t exactly make someone dash to the store for this book, but to miss out would be a real shame. O’Caellaigh has dived into a complex subject and combined it with a visually stunning piece of work to create a detailed life story of Henry and his illnesses, a book which came in very handy for me personally, as well as a great read.

Much is known of Henry’s health, combined with letters written by his doctors and those who were close to the king. Henry’s health changed dramatically throughout his life and had a stark impact on the relationship he had with his wives. Because of this behaviour with these queens, the Tudors have become infamous.

Anyone who has looked for info on Henry’s health will know there is much out there, and not all of it accurate. The author has tried to use primary sources, a great challenge for the time period, as doctors did not keep records as they now do. But through sheer determination it seems, O’Caellaigh has tracked down Henry’s prescription book as well as handwritten records from the Royal British Library. This is combined with letters in the court at the time, and the author has had to push through the accounts to separate truth from rumour.

One original and lucky bonus in this book is the photographs. As Henry was a handsome man, then a huge man, physical appearance would have been important in Tudor times. So this book has been dressed accordingly, with lavish photos of Tudor medicine and history. The photos are a welcome addition to the book.

While there are numerous books that look at Henry’s wives and the destruction of the church, this book looks at Henry from a unique angle, and also catalogues the changes and advancements made during Henry’s life. As Henry’s health and recovery from injuries made such a  difference to his reign, to makes sense to write a book on the details of how people survived during this period. I got a copy of this book not expecting a long read, and yet, to my delight, found it to be fascinating and well-researched. I am extremely pleased to have this book in my digital library and will definitely go back to it time and again.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – November 1937: The Halfway Point

In a war which lasted almost three full years, November 1937 is the approximate halfway point in the destruction of Spain. Spain was already a deeply divided nation, struggling with multiple inside forces and serious social and economic issues, and while civil war is tragic, Spain had come to a point where it was inevitable. The working class was deeply oppressed and dire need for salvation, which could come from nowhere but within. Franco’s initial coup in July 1936 was thwarted only by the men and women who rose up in haste, without training or preparation, in a  desperate attempt to free themselves and save their country from fascism.

(Before we continue, this is a quick round-up of posts I have done throughout the war, not a detailed breakdown. Ease up on the posts saying I wasn’t specific enough. You have been warned. All links open a new tab so you don’t lose the timeline of the events).

The opening weeks of the war saw Spaniards forced to take sides, to align themselves with the military taking control of their cities and towns, often with the Guardia Civil on their side, or instead arm themselves as best they could and align themselves with the Spanish government, the Republican side, to try to hold off the rebels. Within weeks the battle lines were strong; much of southern Spain was conquered by a marching army of rebels, with massive bloodshed in cities and countryside alike. Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona were firmly Republican and fighting within themselves, while in the north, the Basques, Cantabrians, Asturians and Galicians fought to maintain their autonomy over the rebels. Slaughter occurred in Santander and Asturias as rebels initially overpowered these centres, only to be beaten back again. Much north of Madrid beneath these independent areas backed Franco and the killing continued. Click here to read Weeks 1 and 2:  July 1936

August saw thousands slaughtered in the summer heat. The battle of Badajoz saw up to 4000 killed in days. Cordoba suffered massive fighting and killing as troops stormed the southern city. The famous poet Federico García Lorca was taken and murdered outside Granada. While Madrid continued to defend itself, the nearby town of Talavera de la Reina suffered mass slaughter. Click here to read all of August 1936

September saw the huge attack on the Alcazar of Toledo, as well as the formation of the International Brigades, all foreign volunteers who decided to flood into Spain in an effort to stop fascism taking hold. Major nations such as England, France and the US decided to say out while Hitler and Mussolini decided to back their fascist mate Franco.

Through October and November the killings continued, the Spanish government collapsed, and the Catalonia and Aragon regions in the northeast began life as anarchist regions, creating their social revolution where control was handed back to the people. The siege of Madrid began as Franco fought to take the capital and end the war, and the Russians provided tanks and equipment to aid the socialist/anarchist/worker unions/communist Republicans. In the north, and Asturias took heavy losses as they were bombed from the air by German planes. After leaving Barcelona, Buenaventura Durruti was killed in Madrid, a huge set-back for the social revolution in the northwest. Also in Madrid,  Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera is executed.

By the time the year ended, Madrid had been heavily bombed but not taken by the rebels, and the International Brigades had set up and integrated (as well as they could) into the Republican troops. The Republicans were not taking much ground but continuing to hold main centres in the east, along with Madrid. Click here to read all about December 1936

January and February held battles fought in heavy fog and rain, including much fighting outside Madrid, and Jarama, just northwest of the capital. Militias in Catalonia and Aragon held fast to their social revolution, while the Basques suffered heavy losses again as they held off the rebels. In Málaga in the south, the city was invaded when they could not defend themselves, sending thousands to flee along to the coast to relatively safe Almeria. Thousands were slaughtered as they walked the perilous road, where refugees were exposed, then bombed and shot as they fled. Click here to read about the Málaga/Almería massacre.

The bloody battles of Jarama and Guadalajara continued through March, and in April, 32,000 children started being shipped from the Basque country overseas in order to save their lives. The rebel army of the north is intensifying its efforts, with the now-infamous bombing of Durango and Guernica.

May saw the intense bombing of the new Republican capital city of Valencia, along with the fighting in the May Day fighting in Barcelona. June was an especially brutal month, with huge frontlines drawn up along the region of Aragon, battles in the Sierra de Guadarrama outside Madrid, Bilbao in the Basque Country was bombed and invaded, and in Barcelona, leader Andreu Nín was kidnapped and murdered in a Madrid prison.

Battles around Madrid, in Boadilla, Sierra de Guadarrama and Brunete saw huge fighting and casualties for both sides as the war reached its first anniversary. Legendary war photographer Gerda Taro was killed outside Brunete, and no nation except Russia comes to the Republicans’ aid as they are slaughtered by the fascists and their Moorish soldiers.

August 1937 focussed on the north. With the Basque region taken by the rebels, they turned east to take Santander in the Cantabria region. By September, the fascists again moved east again to take Gíjon in the Asturias region, with heavy mountainous battles taking place on cliffs that had kept Asturias safe from invaders for centuries. By October, Asturias was defeated by the northern army and could keep going west to claim Galicia, and Valencia is stripped of its title of capital of Spain in favour safer Barcelona. The Republican alliances of multiple militias fell apart, and many are fired from government and imprisoned, political alliances were ruined, and the dislike for the powerful communists pulled the left apart. The social revolution has suffered setbacks, including heavy battles and losses in the Aragon region, and there was breakdown of working class support in Barcelona.

By November 1937, the frontlines have moved little in some time, with the exception of the conquering of the northern regions. Madrid remains in Republican hands, along with the Valencia, Aragon, Catalonia and Almería region in the east. All regions have suffered serious losses, but little ground is gained in seriously bloody battles.The north is now under Franco’s control, along with all the south and the western Extremadura region. The strong left-wing cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are targets for the well-trained fascist brigades. The month of November saw little of major battles taking place, as both sides are exhausted from the fighting, and small breakouts of fighting yield little results for either side. The new target for the fascists is Teruel, a strong city in the Aragon region, which is about to see one of the war’s biggest fights go down in a particularly brutal winter.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.