Set during World War I (a period I admit I know little about), Gifts of War by Mackenzie Ford tells the story of Hal Montgomery, a bright young British officer who participates in the great Christmas Truce between the Brits and the Germans in 1914. During the truce, he meets an amiable German officer who asks if Hal can somehow get word to the German's English fiancee that he is alive and still in love with her; he gives Hal a photo of himself to prove his loyalty. Hal agrees and is almost immediately seriously wounded, sending him back to England to recover. It is during this period of recovery that Hal seeks out Sam, the fiancee, at first with good intentions, but he soon finds himself falling in love with her. The majority of the novel then follows Hal as his great lie brings him what he wants, yet at what cost?
Told in first person, Gifts of War is like chatting with a friend; Hal shares his innermost griefs and desires fully with the reader. Hal's a sympathetic character, despite his great flaw, and I wanted things to work out well for him. As he rises through the ranks of Military Intelligence, there are adventures that show his deductive skills, but for all his superior intellect, Hal dwells in a fantasy land of hope and maybes. Sam's honesty that she does not love him holds no sway over his feelings for her and her child as he continues to provide them with a home and family life, hoping beyond hope that eventually she will find it within to love him as fiercely as she did Wilhelm, her German lover.
I enjoyed this book but somewhere about midway I began to wish Hal would just realize that he couldn't make Sam love him, no matter what he did for her and her family. Hal plods along guiltily, unable to let go of his dream, even though it is obvious that Sam, while feeling affection and even passion for him, just will never love him. The best parts of the book involved letters from Hal's vibrant younger sister Izzy, a nurse on the front lines who is candid and full of life.
I liked Gifts of War for lots of reasons, however. I liked the interactions between the characters, Hal's job at Military Intelligence, Sam's son Will, and the idea that a novel could come out of a real truce between armies of warring nations. If the ending felt a little false in what Hal does, I could see him reasoning through the details in his own way and coming to just such a conclusion. It is a tragic tale in some ways, and an affirmation that living a lie is detrimental on so many levels. As a lover of historical fiction, I find Gifts of War to be a fine addition to the genre and a welcome look at a relatively overlooked period.