Adelaide Anson-Gravetty wakes up on the morning of her 21st birthday & discovers that she’s not who she thought she was. A letter from a firm of solicitors informs her that she is not the daughter of the man she calls her father. Her half-French mother was married before & her first husband, Freddie Hurst, Adelaide’s father, was killed during WWI. Richard Anson-Gravetty had married Heather Hurst when Adelaide was only a toddler. He adopted Adelaide but didn’t want her to know about her father or his family. Adelaide was only permitted to speak French with her mother when they were alone &, although she’s close to her French grandmother, she knows nothing of the Hurst family. Now, however, she discovers that she has come into a considerable fortune from her Hurst grandfather & also receives a letter, written by her late mother, telling her something of Freddie & explaining the reason for the secrecy about Adelaide’s birth.
Adelaide also discovers that she has an aunt, Sarah, who is a nun in a French convent. Worried that her grandfather’s will makes no mention of Sarah, Adelaide visits her, now Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre, & learns more about her father, Freddie. She also meets her great-aunt Anne, Sister St Bruno, an elderly nun, almost bedridden but with a sharp mind. Sarah explains how she came to enter a French convent (a story told in Diney Costeloe’s earlier novel, The Ashgrove, which I read last year) & that Adelaide need not worry about her inheritance. Sarah received her inheritance from her father as a dowry when she entered the convent. After nursing in the convent hospital during the war, Sarah stayed on & now, almost twenty years later, she is Reverend Mother of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in St Croix. Adelaide is happy to have made contact & delighted to learn about her birth family. She returns home, goes to university & life goes on.
Two years later, in 1939, war breaks out. In France, Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre finds herself & her convent involved in this war as they had been in the last. The convent hospital cares for the local people but soon, refugees fleeing from the advancing German army are also in need of help. Sarah takes in the children of a Jewish woman killed when a group of refugees are bombed & hides them among a small group of orphans that the convent cares for. She has no illusions as to their fate if the Germans should find them & eventually she takes them to the Mother House of the Order in Paris where their story will not be known.
An English airman is shot down & finds his way to the convent. Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc hide him in the cellars & get him away by disguising him as a nun & taking him to Albert, where a sympathetic priest, Father Bernard, helps him get home. Sarah is reluctant to get involved in any more illegal activities, conscious that she has the responsibility of the welfare of all the nuns. She is also well aware that not all the nuns are willing to disobey the German regulations & there are informers among the villagers who would profit from informing on Sarah if they discovered what was happening. She may have lived in France for over 20 years but many remember that she is English & there is also some resentment that she has been promoted to Reverend Mother at such a young age. The German commander, Major Thielen, is suspicious of Sarah’s activities but finds nothing on searching the convent. He is also Catholic & has a certain reverence for the convent & the sisters. That cannot be said of Colonel Hoch, a Gestapo officer who arrives in St Croix soon after, determined to find any traitors, as he calls them, who may be assisting the Resistance or harbouring Jews.
Adelaide, meanwhile, has been recruited to the SOE. Determined to do some war work, she joined up as a driver with the WAAF but, with her fluent French, was soon sounded out about her willingness to be dropped into France to help a Resistance network helping Allied soldiers escape. When Terry, the airman helped by Sarah, returns to England, & Adelaide’s connection to the convent are discovered, she is sent to St Croix to make contact with Sarah & see if the convent is a suitable place to use in the escape route.
Death’s Dark Vale is an exciting story full of suspense & danger. Adelaide & Sarah are both wonderful heroines, incredibly brave & resourceful. Their stories reflect those of many people during WWII who risked their own lives to help others. However, there are just as many characters determined to thwart their plans, whether from cowardice or greed. There’s a real sense of the terror of the times as the Germans settled in to occupation, stealing the convent’s chickens & appearing at any time to conduct a search, respecting no one & questioning everything they’re told. The anguish of not knowing who to trust was ever-present & Adelaide experiences this just as much as Sarah. They are always aware that their actions have consequences, not only for themselves but for the people who help them & the people they’re trying to help & not all their plans are successful. I also loved the impressive level of detail in the descriptions of Adelaide’s training & then her mission in France as well as the many contrivances of Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc as they try to outwit the Germans.
As I mentioned when I reviewed The Ashgrove, Diney is a friend from my online reading group & she kindly sent me a copy of Death’s Dark Vale to review.