Lesbian Review of Books (Vol.V, No.3/Spring 1999)
Significant struggles obscured by larger tragedies have always been compelling to me. In particular, I am drawn to the dramas of adolescence, family, and relationships that have been trivialized or eclipsed by the larger and political horrors of World War II. Caro Clarke, in her novel The Wolf Ticket, addresses one such type of drama: an unlikely and ill-fated attraction between two people during the final days of the war.
Pascale is an American translator serving in the Women's Army Corps; Witold is a Polish refugee trying to stay alive and out of camps. It is love at first sight when Pascale sees the refugee through her train window and decides to pull the sorry soul aboard. Why does she take this risk when she has seen hundreds of people like Witold during her tour of duty? She takes the risk because in those few seconds before the train pulls out, Pascale sees through Witold's disguise, the disguise that has saved him, that has fooled everyone he has come in contact with during the war, including people he lived with and fought against. He convinced all sorts of people, and yet Pascale knows instantly and doubtlessly--and I'm not ruining anything by telling--that he is a she!
This information is revealed on the second page (unless you read the blurb on the back cover), when Clarke simply changes pronouns: "'Come inside,' [Pascale] told her in Polish" (8;emphasis mine). It's too bad that readers aren't given the opportunity to figure this out with Pascale as part of the plot, but the point is, Pascale knows, and moreover, she happens to be a lesbian whose lover back home has just written her a Dear Jane letter because she can't wait for Pascale's return. That seems to be okay with Pascale, who differentiates between love needs and physical needs and is therefore "available" for the duration of the novel.
Witold is a sad beauty, "judging by his shock of blond hair, his high cheek-bones" (7), who has never slept with a woman before. Not only that, she has never even considered sex with a woman. Nevertheless, she and Pascale fall madly in love during their one chaste and talk-filled overnight on the train. Then they must part--circumstances of war and all-- but promise and swear to each other and to themselves that they will find each other and be together always. Witold calls out to Pascale as they part, "'I am responsible for you!'"(43).
The Wolf Ticket is a very good read. The writing is strong, the substantial dialogue is convincing and well paced, and the action is brisk--all of which makes Clarke's unspoken request that readers suspend disbelief, and, more so, that we join in a fantasy of coincidences, good fortune, and lucky breaks, acceptable. That is an amazing feat.
One friend Pascale makes during her quest back to Witold is Nell Tulliver, an international war correspondent, who falls for Pascale, yet willingly helps her find Bron (Witold's real name).
"Are you really holding out for this Witold?" Nell asks.
"It's not about exclusive rights..."
"Okay," said Nell. "Cards on the table. I'd be delighted to drop Witold into a mine shaft--and then sweep you off your feet. I figure I could do it, and I want to. But I'd also be delighted to present her to you on a silver platter. What does that makes me? I'll tell you: stupid."
Pascale laid a hand on her arm. "No, it makes you breathtaking." (106-107)
Ah, yes, remember (and thank goodness for) the differentiation between sex and love.
Nell's motives are not pure: partly she wants the two lovebirds reunited so that Pascale will come to her senses about the unlikelihood of life with a Polish refugee who doesn't speak English. But Nell eventually comes around, as I did, and begins to work hard on Pascale's behalf.
Witold/Bron also meets her share of helpful sorts along the way. She has her run-ins with villains, but I never feared for her safety. Her fights, her bruised and broken body--they seemed more a vehicle to show how tough she is, how like a wolf she is, willing to fight and hurt and kill for Pascale. She is initiated into lesbian sex while in a specially arranged lock-up at a DP camp, and what do you know...her guard is a lesbian!
Clearly, Clarke is aware of how improbable it is that the various people both Pascale and Witold/Bron come in contact with all help them in their efforts to reunite. Not only that, they meet lesbian-friendly people along their very different routes, and if they aren't lesbian, then, like Sybille, the prostitute whom Bron lives with for a while, they're easily convinced. Women fall hopelessly in love with both Pascale and Bron, and separately they each have loving if not in-love affairs. These helpful good women (and the gratuitous gay man) are not insipid or foolish, either. They doubt Pascale and Bron's devotion to each other at times and ask questions that I shared: What if you're imagining all this, how can you believe in love at first sight, why don't you just go back home? Nevertheless, they help out.
The setting of war-torn Europe raises the stakes, heightens the drama, makes the anxiety of hunger, the odd distances and travels, the host of characters all the more believable--not that any of this is believable in a thorough or rational way, but I did think about lesbians during the war and how homophobia in the form of extreme ignorance can sometimes work in your favor.
I enjoyed The Wolf Ticket and gave myself up to the story. Sure, I said to myself as I read, this is a utopian love story set during the Holocaust. What a sweet antidote. I crossed my fingers for Pascale and Bron's future even though I was skeptical about whether they'd actually like each other after sharing a tiny room in a ship bound for America, if they ever got to this point. Clarke caught me up in the hope that they would make it back to each other. I wanted the sunset ending with the unlikely love surviving, shining, and prospering.
Then, just when I was completely taken in by the anticipation of bliss, the story took an unexpected turn that brought the plot to a deeper, more serious level. Ethical questions about what you're willing to sacrifice for the sake of love arise. And not just love, but lesbian love in particular. The characters face a difficult decision, and other decisions are made for them, without their permission.
In the end, I was left not with the glib satisfaction of a requited love story but with far more substantive questions about the definition of war and injustice. The drama of personal or private struggles can be misconceived as not painful or real in relation to the magnitude of WWII, and Clarke raises that issue while also, amazingly, entertaining.
© Susan Kan (Lesbian Review of Books)
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