Hal Montgomery is alive and at war on the Christmas truce during the first World War in 1914. The British and the Germans laid aside their arms for one day and met halfway across No Man’s Land, exchanging gifts and conversation as though they hadn’t just been trying to kill one another and didn’t intend to do so again in a matter of hours. Hal finds himself chatting with a German officer named Wilhelm who is engaged to a British girl. He’d formerly lived in Stratford-upon-Avon and met a schoolteacher, Sam, with whom he fell deeply in love. Wilhelm gives Hal a picture of himself and asks him to let Sam know that he’s alive, still loves her, and still wants to marry her if he ever gets the opportunity.
Shortly afterwards, Hal is shot and crippled in a way that he means he’ll probably never return to the front and may always walk with a limp. This actually gives him the perfect opportunity to find Sam, with whom he’s developed an obsession, and deliver Wilhelm’s picture to her. Instead of honorably fulfilling that request, Hal himself falls in love with Sam and determines to spend the rest of his life loving her, regardless of how she feels about him.
Initially, I really enjoyed this book, and it definitely made me reconsider all the other ARCs on my shelf in which I’ve lost interest. I’m trying to get through them now and this one seemed to declare itself a winner right away. It has a fascinating story, starting with that legendary Christmas truce, and ending up dealing with difficult questions for people living in the early twentieth century. Sam has borne a child out of wedlock, for example, and the scrutiny and discrimination towards her is immense, even leading towards her potential expulsion as a schoolteacher. Her relationship with Hal is frowned upon by all of society and they pretend to be married to escape censure. These are all issues that we no longer have to deal with and the book made me deeply consider how profoundly life has changed.
Throughout the novel, the war goes on, and it ends at about the same time as the book ends. As a result, many of the people Hal knows and loves are off at the front even when he can no longer be there himself. His perspective gives us an insight into the daily stress that people were under but also contrasts the scene of the war with the surprisingly ordinary daily life in Britain. It’s too easy for people to forget that war is happening, even when their lives are consumed with spying and reading intelligence daily as Hal’s is. Still, his losses hit hard, and I found myself regretting all of the deaths that happened.
I had a few disappointments with the book, despite the fact that I did enjoy it and thought it was well-written. First of all, Hal is almost unbearably selfish. I could not believe he didn’t give Sam Wilhelm’s picture, lied to her about meeting him, and then did his very best to make her fall in love with him, mainly because he was so attracted to her. I hated him at times for that. Sam herself wasn’t a particularly standout character and I found her to often be cold and to use Hal in her own ways to get what she wanted. In that respect they deserved each other. My favorite character was probably the child Will, who just doesn’t understand what is going on and wants what a child wants, his parents to be together and happy with him. The ending was also completely unsatisfying. I’m not going to lie, it fit in with the characters’ personalities, but it was not what I wanted out of it, and so I was disappointed even if I should have seen it coming.
So, Gifts of War. It was well-written and interesting, but lacked the spark that would have connected me better to the characters and the story, and I ended up unsatisfied with it as a whole. If Mackenzie Ford were to write another book, I would probably read it, but I would lower my expectations accordingly.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher a shamefully long time ago.