Edward Todd, known as Ted or Teddy, was a pilot in World War II. At the end of Kate Atkinson’s previous novel, Life after Life, which centered on Teddy’s sister, Ursula, Ted’s plane crashed after he flew more missions that he ever should have and his family is informed that he has been killed. Teddy comes back to life, however, in this follow-up novel A God in Ruins. He was apparently in a POW camp.
Ted and his family grew up in the English countryside, although they were not farmers. Fox Corners offered an idyllic patchwork of wild and tamed nature. Although he couldn’t join the Boy Scouts (obviously a sore point) and had to spend his preteen days in the company of both girls and boys in Kibbo Kift, perhaps an English version of 4H, he loved his life at Fox Corners. He had a poetic and pastoral nature. Birds attracted him in particular, but he liked all of it; the fields the skies, the stars, the dogs that the families had, and the wide freedom of it. His mom, Sylvie and his dad, Hugh, were not quite aristocracy, but they lived comfortable lives with a cook and a housekeeper.
Teddy goes to private schools eventually. He wants to do things like drive trains and fly planes. As Hitler is marching across Western and Eastern Europe, Ted does get to fulfill his dream to be a pilot, but only as the pilot of bombers in wartime. He trains in Canada and he shepherds his flight teams through many successful missions and a few that are not so successful. In this second novel, A God in Ruins, Ted comes back from the POW camps and lives out his life.
I would have thought that the author would have given him a heroic life after the drama and terror of flying a plane full of bombs over hostile armies that tried to shoot planes out of the sky. However, perhaps the author wants us to understand the futility of the sacrifices made by these young men. After the war, she tells us (and she did a lot of research), analysts concluded that all this bombing did little damage to the German army, although hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, died and German cities were burned to the ground.
Do pilots bear the same guilt that the German people bear? How about the guilt of those in command who knew that the effects of all that bombing were not as great as you would think? How much of what those commanders ordered was a form of vengeance? What purpose does war serve? I think Hitler may be the only time we can give war a pass, although our guilt for killing innocents should remain, as it should remain for all who take part in warfare.
But Ted did not live a life any different from most other returning veterans (in fact his daughter was a real piece of work). He married his childhood sweetheart more out of inevitability than love. How did that turn out? Well, that’s the part I will not give away. But I will mention that there is a wicked twist at the end of this novel which is there for mainly philosophical reasons.
Kate Atkinson is an excellent writer who offers enough of the beauty that makes our lives bearable, and plenty of the seemingly purposeful banality, intentional and unintentional cruelty, and love that come along with our position as the most sentient species on earth at the moment. Kate’s “hero” Ted may have dropped a lot of bombs on unsuspecting humans, but we recognize that his is a lovely person and well worth getting to know. Atkinson also offers a depiction of the air wars over Germany spelled out in enough horrific detail as to make us think long and hard about ever waging war again. Is there a parallel here that she would like to make with using drones? (There is a whole Adam and Eve metaphor. How far we have come from the garden?) Kate Atkinson is, I believe, an important writer of our time, which, ironically, only time will confirm.
By Nancy Brisson