Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray

Note: This book was originally scheduled to come out in June 2021. According to Edelweiss, the expected publication date has been pushed to March 2022 on the date of this writing.

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray, is a bold book. So many other books about war, fiction or non, discuss the horror of war, occasionally the glory, often the heroism. But only rarely do books about war juxtapose the war dead with the victims of murder. Seeing the two so closely together forces us to try and spot the difference—and wonder if there even is a difference. And Two Storm Wood does this in addition to giving us a love story and psychological drama. This book is an emotional roller coaster.

Amy Vanneck is a romantic. So much so that she travelled across from England to France to find the remains of her secret fiancé at the beginning of Two Storm Wood. (Secret because Amy’s mother, Lady Constance, disapproves of her daughter marrying someone from the lower classes.) As she is told over and over, the former battlefields of northwestern France are no place for a lady. The people who tell her this aren’t wrong because most of the action of this book takes place near the zone rouge—land that was cordoned off so that no one would be killed by all the unexploded ordnance and toxic ground that’s still there more than a century later. But as I said, Amy is a romantic, and determined enough to walk into that to find what’s left of the man she loved.

At the same time that we follow Amy’s efforts to track down her fiancé, we also follow Captain James Mackenzie. Mackenzie is in charge of a group of British soldiers and Chinese laborers (who are subject to constant, appalling racism by the British officers who are bossing them around) who are collecting the remains of British soldiers who died to be reinterred in mass graves. Along with collecting those remains for reburial, Mackenzie tries to collect every clue he can so that the soldiers his crew finds can hopefully be buried with a name. It’s a noble mission. It’s also very dangerous work, being done by men who want to go home as soon as possible. It’s also work that brings Amy to Mackenzie. He and his men are digging near Two Storm Wood, the last place Amy knows where her fiancé was before she lost contact.

Unexploded WWI ordinance near Ypres in 2004 (Image via Wikicommons)

Meanwhile, a man known as Major Westbrook (but who we know is not Major Westbrook, because we saw this man smother the real Westbrook in the prologue) inveigles himself into the story by claiming to have orders to investigate what might be a war crime at Two Storm Wood. Thirteen men were tortured and murdered there before the end of the war. Most would be content to write the deaths off as another Hunnish atrocity—except for the fact that that part of the line was in British hands at the time.

Amy, Mackenzie, and Westbrook follow all the clues they can get their hands on as they try to solve their various mysteries. From our vantage point as readers, we can see that they all have different ends of the same stick. The plots converge near the end of the novel into a spectacular running chase along the edges of the zone rouge as all the secrets finally come out.

Two Storm Wood is a book I wish I had read as a member of a book group, because I would love to talk through all the questions this book tosses up. What do we owe the dead? Is it right for governments to use their soldiers’ lives in a conflict like World War II? What is the moral definition of a war crime? What is the difference between a death as a result of murder and death as the result of an enemy bullet? I hope you readers out there remember this book when it does come out so that we can finally talk about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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