Wartime Historical Settings

Does the thought of a bond forged amidst the destruction of war make you think of hope or despair? Seeing a couple fall in love knowing that one will have to go off to war gives a sense of urgency and emotional depth to the relationship for some readers, but others find it anxiety-inducing instead. It’s a debate that springs up from time to time on various romance discussion boards (including ours), and I always find it interesting.

I’ll do the obvious and get my bias out of the way first. I don’t have a problem with wartime settings in my romances as long as there really is a romance. I can see where insensitive handling of the subject could make for a book that is disturbing far more than it is romantic. However, I have to admit that I find the partings and reunifications between hero and heroine poignant and effective in the right hands. And, even though the subject matter is depressing, I also find something hopeful in those stories of homefront deprivation and sacrifice that lead ultimately to a couple being able to build something hopeful out of despair.

I got my wartime romance fix early with a YA novel called Susannah by Candice F. Ransom, part of a now-defunct line called Sunfire. The heroine of the tale lived in a part of Virginia that suffered greatly during the Civil War. At the beginning of the story, she has a somewhat pampered existence, but the deprivations of the war and the loss of her family’s money (much of which was invested in Confederate currency, if I remember correctly) take their toll. Throughout these trials, Susannah finds support from her unlikely hero, and as the book ends, the two are prepared to embark on a life together. Though the book is filled with dark moments, I cannot help being affected by the thought of these two hopeful souls rising from the ashes to create something better out of life.

Several of the other Sunfire YA romances contained wartime plotlines (Revolution, Civil War – even the War of 1812), and as I grew more mature as a reader, I still found myself drawn to wartime settings. Heather Graham’s One Wore Blue and And One Wore Gray were favorites of mine as was Rosalind Laker’s Circle of Pearls, and even though I always feel emotionally wrung out afterwards, I have re-read Marsha Canham’s Blood of Roses many times. With characters that are (in most cases) likable and endings that are ultimately hopeful, I find these wartime romances deeply romantic. In literary fiction, where I know that a happy ending is not necessarily in the cards, it is harder to for me to let myself emotionally engage with a war story to the degree that I will with a wartime romance.

Though there seem to be fewer wartime romances out there, some still get published. Last year’s highly successful novel from Joanna Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, is set during the Napoleonic Wars. While many Regency historicals and some Georgians are set during times of war, the war in this novel certainly gets more than a mere background mention. The work of the spies is grittier here than in many romances and, especially during the opening sequences in France, the war feels very close to the characters and it lends a certain tension to the plot.

This tension is also present in Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly. The hero of this novel is a naval captain actively engaged in war efforts that take him as far away as Spain. As an innkeeper’s granddaughter in a port town, the heroine hears frequent discussion of the war, and the frequent absences and tensions of the hero’s career are shown in many scenes in the book, some of them quite poignant.

Even though the darker aspects of war are not even vaguely romantic, in the hands of a good author, wartime settings can be very effective. During a time of war, great strength is required and characters in the best wartime stories show amazing growth and inner strength as people (feisty curl-tossing just won’t cut it). In addition, there is something about relationships forged in such turbulent times that seems to give them an emotional depth and great beauty, especially when contrasted with the historical events.

I’d be curious to see other takes on wartime settings. Why or why not would you read them? Do you have any favorites?

-Lynn Spencer

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