REVIEW: ‘The Walnut Tree’ a story of love and war in 1914

Charles Todd’s new novel an engaging read of aristocrat turned nurse
Dec. 08, 2012 @ 02:59 PM

“The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale” is an engaging fireside read whether or not “Downton Abbey” has sparked your interest in World War I or if you’re already a fan of Charles Todd.
It’s not the expected mystery by the mother and son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, the latter a North Carolina resident. “The Walnut Tree” (William Morrow, $16.99) is a bit of a genre departure, and a successful one. It’s shorter than their usual mysteries, and has a few cameos by regular character Bess Crawford. While there is a little bit of mystery afoot, “The Walnut Tree” is a battlefield tale, a love tale, a tale of the upper crust learning about the value of service some deem beneath them, and yes, a holiday tale as well. It’s a wonderful seasonal read with a snowy cover and a slightly smaller book size that makes it easy to slip in a carrying bag.
The heroine Elspeth is Lady Elspeth, the daughter of a Scottish earl, though she stops using her title during the Great War. She finds herself torn between two loves, but not lovers. This is 1914 and they follow propriety restraints of their day and station. She falls first for Alain, the brother of a boarding school friend, before the war begins. He is a handsome Frenchman and she is pleased he plans to ask her cousin for her hand in marriage. But when war comes quickly to France and she tries to return to Great Britain, Elspeth encounters chaos. She meets Peter Gilchrist, a military captain and the son of a Scottish laird from back home. Peter sparks a different reaction than Alain, one more romantic in thought but not in deed. She has already given Alain the impression that she will marry him once properly asked, though they are now separated by war. The war is foremost, and defying what is expected of her, Elspeth becomes a nurse on the battlefield in France, though she knows her guardian cousin would disapprove.
Elspeth learns as much about herself – and being defined by things she has earned rather than titles imposed – as she does how to assist wartime surgeons. The title refers to the walnut tree at the home of one of Elspeth’s fellow nurses in England, where she spends Christmas 1914 mending one of her loves. “The Walnut Tree” is worth reading any time of year, but in this month of December, a great gift to place under a Christmas tree.