This is a charming story evoking positive chance encounters on the London home front during World War II.
Set during Christmas 1940 when possibly the most destructive Nazi blitz occurred, Rhys Bowen’s 2018 short story with seasonal carol title, “What Child Is This”, captures how unexpected events can move people to help and look out for each other, regardless of background and social standing.
A couple of modest means, Maggie and Jack Harris, who had previously lost a child, are forced out of their home by a bombing raid during a cold Christmas Eve. In search for shelter they explore a seemingly abandoned house in a smarter part of town close to Marble Arch.
At first the tale takes an almost Dickensian turn when they discover and take under wing a small scared but plucky lad, Peter, seemingly left to fend for himself at home. Bowen’s writing style captures familiar comforts such as food and cozy rooms creating a near magical quality in contrast to the stark reality surrounding them.
The story ends a little unexpectedly and for good reason: life with its continuing uncertainties will go on for those involved. And the author is focused on the moment of goodwill among strangers during a time of complicated emotions. Continuing the story longer might have diluted its impact.
Bowen has a talent for quickly sketching characters and an ear for dialogue that engages the reader immediately. There is a bit of Pollyanna in the tale that undercuts the gnawing anxiety many were feeling about what was happening around them and to family members in foreign theaters.
But given the complexity and skepticism of the world we live in now, especially with the holidays approaching, this brief respite might provide welcome optimism about our better angels.