“The world is always looking for a good story.
The novel matters because it supplies society with needed diversion, needed respite,
and needed truth that may not come when it’s served up cold.
If we’re really lucky, truth may come through a kid named Huckleberry,
a ghost named Marley, a hobbit named Frodo,
or a place due east of Eden.” — Tracy Groot
Author Tracy Groot serves up the kind of stories readers are hungry for, with the nourishment of a hefty, delicious main course. On top of her Biblical fiction–see my previous posts, The Brother’s Keeper and The Stones of My Accusers–Tracy’s menu offers World War II tales.
The Maggie Bright unfolds the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk (AKA Operation Dynamo) prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II.
The purpose of the evacuation was to remove Allied soldiers before the Germans could occupy Dunkirk. German troops were closing in after “a colossal military disaster,” according to Churchill. The British Amy was stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Evacuation was crucial for escaping defeat by Germany.
From May 26 to June 3, 1940, 338,226 Allied soldiers—Belgian, French, and British—were rescued by 800-plus boats. Some troops boarded ships from the beach while others waded through the harbor to reach them.
The rescue boats included fishing boats, yachts, barges, merchant marine boats, and rowing lifeboats navigated by both naval military and civilians. Fortunately, the operation was a success, heralded by Churchill as a “miracle of deliverance” in his June 4th “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.
Read more about it here:
Back Cover Blurb
2016 Christian Book Award finalist (Fiction category)
England, 1940. Clare Childs knew life would change when she unexpectedly inherited the Maggie Bright—a noble fifty-two-foot yacht. In fact, she’s counting on it. But the boat harbors secrets. When a stranger arrives, searching for documents hidden onboard, Clare is pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation that could shed light on Hitler’s darkest schemes and prompt America to action.
Across the Channel, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg has the entire British army in retreat with little hope for rescue at the shallow beaches of Dunkirk. With time running out, Churchill recruits civilian watercraft to help. Hitler is attacking from land, air, and sea, and any boat that goes might not return. Yet Clare knows Maggie Bright must answer the call—piloted by an American who has refused to join the war effort until now and a detective with a very personal motive for exposing the truth.
The fate of the war hinges on this rescue. While two men join the desperate fight, a nation prays for a miracle.
It’s May, 1940, a year and a half before the USA officially joined World War II.
I confess I didn’t know much about the evacuation of Dunkirk before I read this novel, but this book was a great introduction through the experiences of characters from multiple viewpoints:
- Clare Childs, new owner of the yacht, the Maggie Bright, harboring near London
- American comic book artist, Murray Vance
- Scotland Yard detective, William Percy
- British soldier, Jamie Elliot
Not to mention Father Fitzpatrick who takes up thievery for a good cause (though nobody knows why), and Clare’s boarder on the Maggie Bright, Mrs. Iris Shrewsbury, who’s prepared for such robbers with her teapot and shrill voice.
“What in me is dark, illumine! What is low, raise and support!” — Milton (Paradise Lost)
This recurring line is spoken by war hero and shellshocked Captain Jacobs for most of the book. He’s only capable of speaking lines from Milton. The captain risked his life to deliver a message for saving lives, then lost his own unit. He’s eligible for the Victoria Cross.
Private Jamie Elliot is assigned to get the man to Dunkirk. Thus he embarks with “Milty” (as dubbed by Jamie) on a twenty-mile journey by foot to get to safety with thousands of soldiers waiting to be rescued from Hitler’s advances.
Meanwhile, the London activities of Clare, Murray, and William are perfectly juxtaposed with Jamie Elliot and Milty as they traipse across France.
The Maggie Bright is docked at Elliot’s Boatyard in the village of Bexley-on-the-Thames near London. Captain John Elliot is Jamie’s father. Clare inherited the two-masted 52-foot boat from her father’s friend, someone she hardly knew.
Sixty-seven-year-old Mrs. Shrewsbury (AKA the Shrew) rents a room on ship. While recovering from a burglary that occurred in her very room while she was sleeping, she has no doubt the burglar has earned his spot at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum right next to Jack the Ripper.
The burglar happens to be an American vicar, Father David Fitzpatrick, now dubbed the Burglar Vicar (BV for short). The Shrew keeps her teapot handy in case of further attacks.
But nobody knows what Father Fitzpatrick was looking for on the boat. Thus the mysteries begin. As the vicar sits in jail, he’ll talk to nobody, not even the Scotland Yard detectives. Even though the courts won’t allow bail till he talks.
Back in the USA, Murray Vance vies for my favorite character. He’s the popular American artist of Rocket Boy and Salamander comic books, and creates art for anti-war posters. With rapid-fire speech, he thinks aloud while numerically listing his thoughts and reasons. Regarding his unstoppable imagination, “if someone said ocean to Murray, he tasted salt and rode the swells. He encountered the enormity.”
As Father Fitzpatrick’s friend, Murray is just as puzzled about the priest’s maritime venture into thievery, all the way over in England. He promises the vicar’s wife that he’ll fetch him.
When Clare heads to the police station for answers, she gets nowhere—but she fortuitously stumbles into Murray Vance and the Scotland Yard detectives, particularly William Percy. Percy has a chilly personality, leaning toward despair over hope, with pale eyes color of wheat. But pay attention and note the vital changes . . .
Ever since Clare inherited the boat, she dreams of sailing around the world. However, the Maggie Bright is considered for more noble causes first.
But nothing is cut and dried, not even pursuing the noble cause. Complicated questions arise. As Murray Vance says to the vicar,
“You got a family . . . . if you won’t take care of them, savin’ the world don’t matter.
It’s lost already if a man can’t take care of his own.”
He has good reason for thinking this way. At what point should a man choose saving his country over taking care of his family? Or—in Jamie Elliot’s case—at what point does one protect a comrade at the expense of others’ safety? And should the Maggie Bright join the civilian rescue venture even if her owner is indisposed?
So much is at stake—still too much to tell the detectives. Nobody can be trusted. The stakes raise with each chapter.
This novel touches on the debate: even though the United States demonstrated support for the Allies, should they have joined the war effort before December, 1941? In this novel, I felt the agony of Europeans who believed the USA wasn’t doing enough. Clare hates America for its isolationist policies.
Whether you’re a fan of World War II fiction or not, I highly recommend The Maggie Bright. WW II fiction is not my go-to genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed this story.
Join me for some Q & A with Tracy Groot.
Questions regarding The Maggie Bright
I’ve read that your novel ideas come from a variety of inspiration and sources: characters, plots, or themes. What specifically inspired you to write about Dunkirk?
Tracy: While I was researching for The Flame of Resistance, I often came across references to Dunkirk. When I did a cursory look into what the story of Dunkirk was about, I knew I had to write about it.
You chose multiple POVs from which to write The Maggie Bright. How did you decide whose to use? Did it start out as Clare’s story and evolve into Jamie Elliot’s, William Percy’s and Murray Vance’s? Or did you conceive of it all together?
Tracy: As I did research into the story, I knew it needed multiple POVs to tell it properly, from the standpoint of a British soldier on sudden retreat, to the average British citizen who might sail boats over the Channel. And just to keep things interesting (and accurate), I also wanted an American involved. There was at least one American involved in the rescue at Dunkirk. Here, Murray served.
Are any of the characters based on people you know or have read about?
Tracy: Most of the characters are inventions. William Percy and Mrs. Iris Shrewsbury are composite characters based on several real people. Others, such as Captain William Tennant, are historical figures who appear in the context of their role.
What kind of research was involved? Did you sail on a ship similar to the Maggie Bright? Did you visit England and France?
Tracy: Lots! For me, research always involves books, film, documentaries, interviews, and site research. It was all quite fascinating! Yes, I’ve sailed on a few boats similar to The Maggie Bright. One was called Crystal Stream, and the other, Learnt’s Wake. Maggie is mostly modeled after Crystal Stream, a lovely 55’ ketch-rigged vessel. I visited both England and France for site research, at places such as Dunkirk in France and Teddington Locks in England. I had the honor of a private tour aboard the MTB-102 that carried off Captain Tennant, as well as one of the actual “Little Ships” of Dunkirk.
You’ve written another World War II novel: Flame of Resistance (2013), which takes place closer to the end of the war as opposed to The Maggie Bright, set closer to the beginning. What other similarities or differences characterize these two stories?
Tracy: Flame of Resistance is a story that takes place under Nazi occupation of France, whereas the story of Dunkirk takes place both in free England and in Belgium and France just before they fell; the shadow of occupation had not yet fallen, giving a far different feeling to both stories.
You’ve written two World War II novels, a Civil War novel, and three Biblical fiction novels. Do prefer writing in one time period over another?
Tracy: Not really. I like to write about events that interest me enough to dig into them and see where the real story is; and where the story is, there are always ordinary and fascinating people who made that event happen. The Sentinels of Andersonville, for example, is based on the true story of a southern Civil War prison known for horrendous living conditions; my question was, Where did light shine? It always does, in the darkest of places. My joy as a storyteller is to find out where, and in whom.
Are you planning to write more World War II novels? Do you want to delve into other time periods or stick to the ones you’ve written about? Can you share something about a future project or the direction you want to go?
Tracy: I have no current plans to write another WWII novel. Time periods hold no real interest to me—it’s only the event that matters. Of course, the further back the event is, the more research I need to do. But I’ve always considered that intensely enjoyable. I’m currently at work on a modern fairy tale, a story that will be told in three books. The first book is finished. I’m at work on the second, while doing some research along the way.
There is one other historical fiction book I have yet to finish, set in ancient times. It’s a half-written story about Jonah. Actually, it’s about the men he sailed with; I’ve researched this book for a decade or so, twice visiting the Mediterranean to sail around Cyprus and Southern Turkey. Looking forward to writing it again—some day!
Besides reading, do you have any other advice for aspiring novelists?
Tracy: Boy, do I. Here it is: don’t lose your joy of storytelling. That happened to me for a time. Storytelling became this onerous thing, something I had to do instead of something I was privilegedto do. I had inflicted upon my work far more purpose than it warranted; I told myself it had to be well-written, it had to have purpose, it had to have excellence—and it sucked the joy out of writing. No one wants to read a story burdened with purpose. Just find a good story, and tell it.
Good stories start and end with clear hearts, clear focus. If you’ve lost those, take a break until you find them again. If you feel creatively bankrupt and need still waters beside which to lay down, I recommend The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.
I also recommend a study of 2 Timothy 1:6-7. Take a look at what God has given to you, regarding this glorious thing you get to do: He’s given you power, love, and a sound mind. That kind of focus will keep a heart and a mind unburdened. Good writing, not to mention good living, are the joyous fallouts of that passage. I’m thinking of getting it tattooed… 😀
Back to Laura . . .
On a different note, I’m currently gathering a launch team for my own historical fiction, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split-time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
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Tracy Groot is the critically acclaimed and Christy Award-winning author of several works of historical fiction. Her books have received starred Booklist and Publishers Weekly reviews and have been called “beautifully written” and “page-turning” by Publishers Weekly, and “gripping” with “exquisitely drawn” characters by Library Journal. Tracy and her husband have three sons, one daughter (in-law) and live in Hudsonville, Michigan. Connect with Tracy at her website, or follow her on Facebook.
Join me next time for more World War II fiction and a visit with Liz Tolsma.
Meanwhile, have you read The Maggie Bright? Do you have a particular WWII event you like reading about? Answer in the comments below.