Books·First Look

Read excerpt from Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham, upcoming novel about Canadian soldiers in WW II

Letters Across the Sea is the story of a Protestant girl and her Jewish neighbour living in Toronto, before and during the Second World War.

Letters Across the Sea will be available in April 2021

Letters from Across the Sea is a historical novel by Genevieve Graham. (Simon & Schuster Canada, Nicola Davison)

Letters Across the Sea is the next book by bestselling historical fiction writer Genevieve Graham.

Letters Across the Sea is the story of a Protestant girl and her Jewish neighbour who are growing up in Toronto, against the backdrop of the Depression, and then the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and a wave of hate that would ignite the Second World War.

Graham, who is from Nova Scotia, has written several novels that highlight Canadian history. Her other books include At the Mountain's Edge, Tides of Honour, Come From Away and The Forgotten Home Child.

Letters Across the Sea will be available on April 27, 2021.

You can read an excerpt from Letters Across the Sea below.

It's about the last stand during the Second World War, when Canadians fought against the Japanese in Hong Kong in 1941.

On Christmas morning, the remaining ragtag members of Canada's Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers, known as C Force emerged from the mountains, worn threadbare after two weeks of fighting the relentless Japanese offensive. Without food or water, they'd climbed impossibly steep slopes to fire down on the enemy, then stooped under thick, tropical undergrowth the next, laden with weapons, dwindling ammunition and what wounded they could carry.

The attack on Pearl Harbour felt like a year ago, not 18 days. Since then, the Allied forces had lost the Hong Kong mainland to Japan and been pushed to this last stronghold, at the south end of Hong Kong Island: Stanley Fort.

Max, David, and Arnie collapsed with exhaustion, lying flat on the cement floor of the fort.

"Think we'll ever get home?" David asked.

Max rolled his head to look at his brother-in-law's profile. Like the rest of them, David was streaked with dirt; some was clumped into his beard. No one had shaved in a week. Hell, no one had taken off their boots.

Max started to answer, but David was already asleep.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Canadian soldiers are overwhelmed in their first major battle of the Second World War. 9:53

An hour later, Sergeant Cox emerged from a meeting, and Max noted the tight set of his jaw.

"At 1:00 p.m., we will retake Stanley Village," he said, pointing to a building on his map, set behind the village graveyard.

"In broad daylight, sir?" Max asked, his voice hoarse.

Cox reluctantly met their bloodshot eyes. "Here's the choice, fellas. We attack or wait here like lame ducks." He lifted his chin. "Except it's no choice at all. We're Canadians. We don't give up. I'm not gonna lie. The truth is, they don't expect many of us to return."

Arnie lay on the ground nearby, listening. At that, he rolled onto one elbow. "Sir, that's goddamn pleasant news on Christmas morning."

Max smiled while the entire unit applauded. Leave it to Arnie to hang onto his sense of humour to the last. But dread rolled through Max at Cox's cold, hard facts.

"Whoever makes it out of this has to tell the wives," David muttered, blinking hard. "I'm not sure which would be worse."

I'll keep him safe, Max had promised his sister Hannah, long ago in a letter. Was there anything he could do to keep that promise?

We're Canadians. We don't give up. I'm not gonna lie. The truth is, they don't expect many of us to return.

"We'll get out of this," Max tried to say, but the words stuck in his throat, burning there.

The next hour or so was spent in near silence. No one complained, and no one begged to be excused from the battle. They were in this together, and Max felt their resolve just as he felt his own. He cleaned his weapons, stocked up on grenades, then, resigned to his fate, fell asleep.

When the time came, they followed Cox, staying low and ducking into a ditch across the road from the village cemetery. Max noted the Japanese spread all over it, surrounded by superior weapons and what looked like limitless ammunition. Beyond them stood the target. He glanced behind him at David and Arnie, shoving clips into their rifles. That done, they looked to him, and a terrible sadness stretched between the three friends. What would be left of them when this was all over?

"Fix bayonets," Cox called.

All at once they were charging, screaming like banshees, firing their precious ammunition. When they got closer, the bayonets came into play, then Max used his fists, roaring with fury with every punch. Incredibly, the Japanese started to fall back and flee toward the row of houses.

"Go after them!" Cox shouted.

And then Max was running with the rest of them, tossing grenades into the occupied houses, feeling the whoosh of heat burn his skin as they exploded.

Canadian men and women overseas send messages from "Canada's Fighting Fronts." 13:27

"We're doing it!" David yelled.

Ahead of them, the targeted houses looked wide open, and Max, David, and Arnie careened through the door of the nearest one. Through the smoke, Max spotted enemy soldiers scrambling out of a back window. He gave chase, then froze when he spotted movement to his left.

"Grenade!" he screamed, wheeling back toward the entrance. The three of them tumbled out the door, deafened by the explosion, then watched their comrades pour out of another house just before it exploded. Those men staggered to their feet, but the Japanese were on them, cutting them down. The enemy had regrouped, and they were a furious hive of deadly hornets.

"Retreat! Retreat!"

"Come on!" Max yelled. "We're getting out of here now!"

He could feel the bullets whizzing past, so close, so very close, as they ran. Then David turned. Suddenly his eyes flew open in an almost comical expression of disbelief, and he dropped like a stone.

He looked up, straight into the barrel of a Japanese gun.

Max fell beside him, screaming David's name, pumping his chest and pleading for him to Breathe! Breathe! despite the savage hole shot between his eyes. Seconds later Arnie squatted beside them.

"We gotta go!" he sobbed. "Come on, Max!"

But Max stared at David's body, unable to move. He couldn't leave him there. With all his strength, he threw David over his shoulder and started to run, feeling the dear weight of his brother-in-law jarring against him every step of the way. Then Max jerked, his leg giving way when a bullet struck him, and both he and David tumbled across the field, his gun rolling off on its own.

Arnie looked back, but Max shook his head. "Run, Arnie! Keep running!" He dug his fingertips into the dirt, dragging his body toward David's, then froze when a black leather boot appeared in his vision. He looked up, straight into the barrel of a Japanese gun.

The soldier looked so young, Max thought. Barely old enough to be shaving.

Max dropped his face to the dirt, his empty hands held out in surrender. I'm so sorry, Hannah. I'm so sorry, Hannah. But there was no use in pleading. There was no escape.

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