It seems like every time I point out a book with a questionable premise of Twitter a dozen or so people slide into my DMs like "That book is a mess but I'm afraid to say anything." Ever since author Kathleen Hale doxxed an anonymous reviewer, a lot of folks have been afraid to critically review a book. It's difficult to be completely anonymous on the internet.
So, from now on I'm offering up my blog as a place for readers to critically review books with problematic content. Because you can't improve if you don't know what you did wrong in the first place.
I hope this review helps people make informed decisions.
Sometimes I see a book in the PW deal announcements and get excited about it. Then a couple years later, when the book is actually coming out, I find myself cringing. Since that deal was announced, I’ve learned and grown and can see a questionable premise for what it is.
Wait for Me was one of those books. But I kept seeing reviews saying it handled it well and was so good and so I decided to give it a shot. And while reading it, I really enjoyed it! Then I sat back and really thought about it and oh, what a mess this book is.
In 1945, Lorna lives in a small town on the Scottish coast - Aberlady - with her dad and a girl from the Women’s Land Army who helps on their farm. Her brothers, John Jo and Sandy, are off fighting in WWII, John Jo on the front lines and Sandy in offices in London. Lambing season is approaching and one of the former farmhands was injured and retired from work. There’s no way that Lorna, her dad, and Nellie can handle the lambing season on their own; Lorna is still in school and Nellie doesn’t handle births well. So Lorna’s father agrees to take on a German POW from the nearby camp as free labor.
You can see where this is going.
Lorna is, at first, horrified at the prospect of a German soldier working on the farm with them. Her brothers are off risking their lives fighting Germans, they still live with blackout curtains and light restrictions in the evening since they live on the coast, and now her dad wants one working on the farm?
Then she meets Paul. Paul who, she learns, speaks English fairly well. Half his face was burnt by a grenade on D-Day before he was captured, but he may have been handsome? Probably? Eventually she decides he’s definitely handsome, burns and all. Because….that’s important.
Later we learn that Paul was from Dresden, where he lived with his mom and younger sister. His dad had gone off to war and died years before and Paul was working as an apprentice to a watchmaker until he was old enough to be drafted. He didn’t want to be a soldier, it is made clear, he just had to be. Which, I guess I can’t fully blame him for, but we’ll get to why this is still a problem later.
Time goes by and the town is clearly unhappy with Paul. Lorna’s best friend, Iris, keeps giggling about him being handsome but also terrible because he’s German. But Lorna defends him - he’s nice and quiet and works hard. He even gets to sleep over on the farm when lambing season picks up, wearing Lorna’s brothers’ things. Meanwhile Iris is being courted by the pastor’s son, William, an awful boy who tells Iris how to feel and where she can go. Lorna keeps telling Iris that William is awful and Iris keeps insisting he isn’t as he grabs her arm and drags her somewhere else. Super convincing, right? Everyone else in Lorna and Iris’s class is equally awful. The teacher is nice though, forgiving Lorna for always being late and trying to get her to think about college.
And so we’ve set the scene.
First of all, nothing is ever mentioned about Jewish people or concentration camps. This is spring of 1945 and it never comes up. You can argue that Lorna may have been unaware and say that Germans didn’t know about the camps and Paul left Dresden before it became widely known - but Dresden is a 45 minute drive from the Sachsenburg Concentration Camp. And Buchenwald? That was a little over 2 hours away. Sure, that’s by today’s standards and it was different then...but Dresden was the biggest city near the Sachsenburg camp. I’ve been to Munich and I went on a day trip to Dachau from there - those nearby big cities could not have been oblivious. The traffic they would experience, the supplies that would be needed - a lot would need to go through big cities. But it’s not mentioned, not once. There’s no excuse for not mentioning this at all. It’s great that Paul wanted nothing to do with the Nazi party, but he still knew and still became a soldier anyway. And how do you write a WWII story and ignore the Holocaust entirely?
Also at one point, Paul learns that Dresden was destroyed by Allied bombs and is clearly upset about it, but Lorna is oblivious and learns about it months later...and does nothing. The boy she claims to love has likely lost his home and his sister and mom might be dead and this is never really addressed. This book is problematic, but it’s also just messy.
Second, literally every man who isn’t Paul or Lorna’s dad is terrible. William is a manipulative, emotionally abusive asshole who tries to ban Iris from going to Lorna’s house without him. Additionally, it’s eventually revealed that he kissed Lorna when they were kids. One day when he gets suspicious about Lorna and Paul, he manhandles Lorna and tells her if she has needs, she doesn’t need to go to a German. While Iris is just a few feet away. William’s father - the pastor - is spineless and follows his awful wife’s orders. Nellie is dating an American pilot and in love with him. She even takes Lorna to a dance at their air hanger. At this dance, Nellie leaves Lorna with one of the other pilots, who gets her drunk and tries to rape her, and she then has to get home on her own. Nellie comes back the next morning and about a month later, discovers she’s pregnant. She tries to go to her American pilot and tell him, but he’s been ignoring her. So she goes on the base to tell him, at which point he tells her he doesn’t love her, he’s got a wife back home, and breaks up with her. Even Lorna’s brothers are a bit sketchy; Sandy’s okay, but John Jo comes back on leave and spends most of the time drunk.
Speaking of Lorna’s brothers, John Jo is not happy about Paul being on the farm. At all. Things come to a head when he comes home while Paul is helping to clean up a cut Lorna gets on her knee. John Jo freaks out about it, threatening Paul and pushing him until he hits the ground hard enough to get a cut on the back of his head. Lorna brings John Jo inside and yells at him, telling him that she hates him. He leaves the house, she goes up to her room and cries herself to sleep, and in the morning John Jo is gone, having left without a word to anyone. Paul has also acquired a black eye and bruised knuckles from fighting John Jo, but no explanation is given as to when this fight happened. Shortly after, a telegram arrives saying John Jo is missing. Lorna blames Paul, trying to hit him, until she’s restrained. She then takes all the blame on herself for telling John Jo she hated him and causing him to leave (which...he would’ve done anyway? He only had like another day or two off before he had to return so…). She continues to blame herself until a telegram arrives saying he’s been wounded and taken as a German prisoner. At this point, she tells her dad about all of it and that it was her fault? I dunno.
On the other hand, Sandy comes back and basically gives Lorna and Paul the okay, everything’s hunky dory and Paul is a good guy. ??????
Third, the friendships are just kind of awful? Nellie abandons Lorna, knowing she’s younger, innocent, and never drinks, with an American soldier so she can go have sex. Why would you do that?? And IRIS. At one point, Lorna tells Iris that she and Paul kissed, then told her she couldn’t tell anyone. And I don’t blame her. Iris argues that she can’t lie to William, so unless he specifically asked what they talked about that afternoon, she wouldn’t tell. (We see where this is gonna go, yeah?) Iris told William, who quickly spread word, and the town begins shunning Lorna and gossiping about her all the time and it nearly destroys their friendship.
Meanwhile, pregnant Nellie was out herding cows when a German plane comes and starts shooting at her and the cows?? Several of the cows die and Nellie nearly miscarries, but Lorna and Paul are nearby and get her to safety and get her a doctor and she keeps the baby. But it is 1945 and they are still getting attacked by Germans. But the doctor is assuring them that Paul, the German soldier, and Lorna saved Nellie and her baby’s life. WHY DID THIS SCENE EVEN HAPPEN?
Now it’s Victory Day, everyone’s celebrating the end of the war. John Jo is okay, sure the teacher’s son was killed in action and she’s been mourning for a month, but otherwise it’s all good. Parties are thrown, rationing is ignored, and there’s to be a celebratory mass.
Lorna goes to the celebratory party for the kids, then returns home. Lorna’s dad, who hasn’t gone to church since his wife died 15 years ago, insists that all of them - including Paul - go to this celebratory mass. Lorna’s like ???? and same, girl, same. But it’s a time of peace and celebration so SURE let’s bring Paul. They get there and everybody’s kind of pissed. Their housekeeper and her family stands with them in support while the pastor tries to tell them that nobody wants Paul in that church. Then, THEN, the teacher who had her son die in the war emerges from her house. We all must come together, she says. So many prisoners of war and families who miss them, we should be welcoming Paul!
Girl, I’m sorry, but did you miss that your son was killed by Germans like six weeks ago? Alright then.
So she marches them all into church and Iris tries to come along. William gets pissed and says no, she cannot do that to him, she has to sit with his family. She opts out and goes to sit with her family instead. Praise! I thought. The girl is learning her boyfriend is an abusive asshole!
Church ends and there’s another celebration and Paul has headed home, but Lorna’s still there and she gets to watch William propose to Iris. Lorna specifically says that not only is this proposal revenge against Lorna, who clearly did not like William, but also against his mother, who had embarrassed him publicly earlier in the day. Clearly, Iris is gonna say no now, right? EXCEPT WRONG, SHE SAYS YES. She says it’ll have to wait since William is gonna get drafted and she has plans to go to college to study fashion, but she’s still gonna marry him anyway. Lorna never tells Iris about the kiss as kids or about the manhandling two months ago.
The book ends with Paul and Lorna looking towards a possible happily ever after. The author then includes an Author’s Note saying the things she changed, then saying that this was a thing that actually happened. German POW were sent to Scottish and British farms and many of them never went home or went home, then came back because they married Scottish and British women who lived on those farms.
Usually when a book is written about a German soldier and he’s a romantic character, he has a redemption arc. But not in this book. Paul never changes. He is kind, caring, and lovely the entire book. Everyone else had to change to accept Paul. Lorna had to change to see that actually Paul was great, everyone else had to see that German soldiers were just like them, just doing what they were told, and should be forgiven. And they had families who loved them and missed them, just as they loved and missed their boys at war. All of this while never mentioning what Germans did to Jewish people, what they did in the Holocaust - things that cannot be forgiven or overlooked because they were just following orders. Maybe Paul wasn’t active in this, but he had to have known something living so close to two camps. And he’s supposed to be forgiven. One of their local kids died, five of them went missing - including John Jo - and they are still supposed to be compassionate and kind.
This wasn’t a story that YA needed. There are a lot of YA WWII stories we do need - especially stories actually about Jewish people by Jewish authors and stories that make actual heroes of WWII love interests - but this wasn’t one of them. Especially when told in a way that basically presents a German soldier as the only decent man so you’re manipulated into liking him. I’m just...kind of floored that this book is coming out as is (admittedly, I read an ARC. Some things could change but...I haven’t heard about it). And I’m disappointed in the many people who loved this book without any hold ups to the content. Yes it’s well written and engaging and I stayed up way later than I should have finishing it. But then I looked at it again in the morning and saw all of these problems. This is not okay. Normalizing and romanticizing people who fought to protect fascism in this climate? Is not okay.
Do better, publishing.