Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two innocents in America

Christopher and Columbus, Elizabeth von Arnim

One of the symptoms of a new literary crush is that I immediately start looking for the other books that my new discovery has written (I'm currently waiting on Otis Skinner's autobiography from the library).  I was introduced to Elizabeth von Arnim with The Enchanted April, and the copy I read included brief descriptions of several of her books.  Of course I will be reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but what really caught my eye was Christopher and Columbus:
"As the First World War looms, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas, seventeen-year-old orphan twins, are thrust upon relatives. But Uncle Arthur, a blustering patriot, is a reluctant guardian: the twins are half-German and, who knows, they could be spying from the nursery window ... Packed off to America ..."
This all sounded so intriguing, from the Great War setting to the Sara Crewe element to the voyage to America.  Maybe my expectations were initially too high, because the first part of the book dragged a little for me.  I didn't find the twins quite as captivating as I think I was supposed to, though to be fair we meet them at a very depressing moment, as they huddle together on the deck of the ship taking them to America. The twins' mother returned to her native England after the death of their Junker father.  She died shortly afterwards, leaving them to their Aunt Alice and her husband Arthur, a spiritual twin of Mellersh Wilkins and Vernon Dursley.  England is in the early days of the Great War, and Uncle Arthur already hates Germans, even half-Germans. In the world of this book, the father's nationality trumps the mother's, in part because the twins speak English with an accent (a rolling R), and in part because everybody automatically hates Germans.

Still, I found it hard to believe that Uncle Arthur could have these seventeen-year-old girls put on a ship to America, alone and in second class, with £210 and two letters of introduction.  Even Sara Crewe got to stay in the attic bedroom and eat kitchen scraps.  Aunt Alice, worn down by twenty years of marriage to Uncle Arthur, is torn between her duty to him and to her nieces, but in the end she chooses her husband.  What she needs is a trip to Italy in April

On the boat, the two Annas meet Edward Twist, an American returning from France.  The inventor of the marvelous "Twist's Non-Trickler Teapot," he has funded an ambulance and has driven it himself at the front, and he is now returning for a leave in America.  He becomes increasingly concerned about their situation, eventually appointing himself their de facto guardian.  Their adventures after the ship reaches New York make up the rest of the book, with Twist trying to ride herd on two devastatingly lovely and outspoken young women, while becoming more and more attached to them.

Much is made of America's status as a neutral country, and yet the twins face constant hostility when their German identity is disclosed.  They are automatically assumed to be spies or German agents, much as Americans of Japanese descent were in World War II.  I saw from the biographical note in the book that von Arnim traveled to America in 1916, after the break-up of her marriage to Earl Russell, so she may have seen this prejudice at first hand. The information that her daughter, Felicitas, died in Germany during the war adds a poignant note to Anna-Felicitas' name, and to the book as a whole.


  1. I really wish it were easier to find print copies of this (I know it's available for ereaders but I get no enjoyment out of reading novels off screens) because it is the von Arnim novel I am most eager to read. I'm so sorry you didn't enjoy it more. I adore Elizabeth and Her German Garden and would also heartily recommend von Arnim's The Pastor's Wife, which is characteristically sharp and witty.

  2. I ended up really enjoying it, it just took me a while to connect with it, unlike The Enchanted April, where I just opened the cover & fell into the book. Have you tried interlibrary loan? WorldCat lists at least 400 copies available.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!