Caro Clarke's first novel is a fascinating look at refugees at the end of World War II, and at the extraordinary efforts one woman makes to find a future in a ravaged Europe. It also has the most convincing love-at-first-sight plotline I've ever read, one that renews my faith in the possibility of falling head over heels and never regretting that for a moment.
Pascale is an American translator traveling with her fellow Wacs through newly liberated Europe when she notices a painfully bedraggled refugee waiting at the train station where her train is momentarily stopped. Although the refugee is dressed in men's clothing, it is clear to Pascale that this refugee is a woman, and in an impetuous moment Pascale decides to hide her on the train and transport her to less dangerous territory. When she meets Witold, Pascale knows that this is the woman with whom she will, no, she must spend the rest of her life. Witold feels the same powerful certainty, but when the women are separated, they must, in spite of almost overwhelming obstacles, find each other again.
Clarke does a fine job of creating the chaos and terror of post-war Europe, the suffering of the victorious French, and especially the real dangers faced by Polish refugees who were unlikely to survive capture by the Russians or repatriation to Soviet-controlled Poland.
The passion felt by her two lovers is compelling; their efforts to reconnect are extremely moving. Clarke's minor characters are credibly portrayed, their casual homophobia chilling. Best of all, though, I liked the way some characters were willing to take great risk, with no possibility of personal benefit, to help strangers in need. I guess I want to believe that such people exist; it was quite wonderful to find them in this novel.
The Wolf Ticket is a fascinating novel, romantic in the best sense, filled with possibilities for a better way to live. Add humor to that mix, and eros of the highest order, and you have a novel well worth your time. I suspect it's one you'll enjoy rereading as well, and that is a rare gift indeed.
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 al—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.
Plucky characters and Hollywood-style action-adventure characterize this pleasing first novel, set in Europe during the last months of WWII. When Pascale Tailland, a translator in the WAC, makes a split-second decision to rescue a stranded refugee, the wheels of a colorful lesbian romance are set into motion. The refugee, a scrappy young Polish woman masquerading as a man, and Pascale quickly forge an indelible bond and are almost as quickly separated by mischance. Each embarks on a quest to find the other and, along the way each recruits a lively cast of characters to her aid. Clarke adds some depth and resonance to what is essentially a quick-paced swashbuckler by examining the refugee experience during and directly after WWII. All told, Clarke has created a diverting, unabashedly sexy romantic lark.
To take the wilczy bilet, or the "wolf ticket", is to roam "like a hunted animal, every man's hand against you." In Caro Clarke's first novel, a historical romance set at the close of World War II, a cross-dressing Polish refugee has adopted precisely such a nomadic, dangerous aproach to wartime survival. But while Witold (née Bronia) Rukowicz may well have every man's hand against her, thanks to a chance encounter with Pascale, a well-connected Women's Army Corps translator who falls in love with her, she has virtually every lesbian in the European theater working to ensure her safety.
The love-at-first-sight meeting between Witold and Pascale (the only character who instantly sees through the refugee's assumed gender) and their almost immediate separation provide Clarke ample opportunity imaginatively to recreate a rich wartime lesbian culture as each of the lovers journeys through France in search of the other. En route, Witold/Bronia is initiated by a buxom American nurse into the mysteries of lesbian sexuality, mysteries which she obligingly shares with Sibylle, a bitter provincial French prostitute with a heart of gold. Not to be outdone, Pascale lives it up in gay Paris, bedding Nell Tulliver, an American foreign correspondent who is celebrated as the only female journalist to cover Pearl Harbor. Conveniently, throughout these adventures both Pascale and Witold continually voice not only their undying love for each other, but also their admirably flexible attitudes toward monogamy. Even more conveniently, the lovers Pascale and Witold collect along the way cheerfully sacrifice their own desires to the greater good of True Lesbian Love, as represented by the novel's central star-crossed lovers.
If the novel's plot (and dialogue) feel forced at times, The Wolf Ticket is nevertheless a noteworthy achievement: Clarke makes lesbian history come alive by imagining a moment when women on the fringes of society discover in the chaotic aftermath of war their capacity for heroism and collective action.
Indeed, the setting for the novel may be the 1940s, but it has a very 1990s agenda: Clarke has not only lesbians from diverse class and national backgrounds working together for the common good, but also gay men, African Americans, and sex workers, creating an ad-hoc wartime Rainbow Coalition of sorts. As utopian as Clarke's vision may seem in the abstract, it acquires an air of reality through the subtle yet telling details she incorporates into her novel. We can easily imagine one lesbian WAC confiding to another that their colonel is "as nancy as they come," and therefore sympathetic to the gender-bending Witold's plight. Similarly, it is easy to see the bitchy, exploited French whore finding temporary happiness with an African-American G.I. who shared with her his love of jazz. Or to visualize Nell Tulliver receiving, in response to her request for information on the lost Witold, a letter from a fellow gay journalist that begins, coyly, "Darling Nelly...Isn't it yours truly who's supposed to chase the men?" These wonderful touches that not only help Clarke's characters to transcend their sometimes ponderous dialogue, but also to remind us that behind all official accounts—of war and otherwise—lie fascinating, complicated stories in which would-be outsiders collaborate in mutually affirming acts of humanity, compassion, and love.
Perhaps the most surprising, daring, and therefore powerful aspect of the novel is its troubling conclusion. Without giving too much away, it bears noting that the moody, disturbing last chapter of the novel subverts the romance tradition out of which it arises by giving us a wedding that is nightmarish in its coercive tidiness. Everything is in place, down to the cake-cutting and the bouquet toss, but one feels the novel, like the characters themselves, writhing under the demands of tradition and narrative closure. Although the final pages seem to reassert the possibility of lesbian love in an uncomprehending and sometimes hostile world, doubt lingers, like a wedding cake mashed under a pillow.
[I snip some of this, as it gives away the ending.]
The time and place is immediate postwar Europe. Thousands of displaced persons are unable or unwilling to return home, fearing that their wartime suffering would only be magnified. One of them is Bronia, who has been passing as a man until Pascale, a translator with the U.S. Women's Army Corps, sees through her and is smitten. Pascale's fellow soldiers warm to her when they think she's fallen for a Polish refugee "boy." In her efforts to get Bronia to the States, Pascale is aided by a host of accomplices, all lesbian or gay: a well-known news broadcaster, an upper-class WAC officer, and a nurse. Bronia, who since the age of 17 has known only death and destruction, has to employ her own cunning and charm, winning over and transforming a young French prostitute shunned as a Nazi collaborator. In this romantic tale of love conquering all, Bronia and Pascale are put to one final test.
Clarke's first novel is a tribute to the ingenuity of lovers in desperate circumstances.
Pascale, a translator in the Women's Army Corps, impulsively rescues a Polish refugee in the waning days of World War II. Witold, the refugee, is wary as a wolf and sometimes scary with a knife. Bound by instant, deep attraction and the fact that Witold knows Pascale knows he is really a woman in disguise, the two spend one precious day together before being separated. Witold is taken to a French refugee camp, and Pascale is ordered elsewhere, but not before she shares her secret with her commanding officer, who arranges hospital quarantine for Witold as an alternative to the men's camp. But a lusty lesbian nurse seduces Witold, who then plots escape to avoid forcible repatriation and to find Pascale. Fast-paced action, finely drawn characters struggling against a backdrop of ravaged Europe, and a gripping portrayal of love in all its forms triumphing against the odds combine in a hard-to-put-down lesbian romance that ought to please mainstream crossover readers, too.