Sometimes writers spend years looking for their next book, and sometimes it finds them. Gay M. Grant, Maine author and congressional representative, spent years gardening, baking and sipping tea next to her British “mother-daughter-sister-friend,” Patricia Philips, before she realized that her second book, Destination Unknown, released in 2014, would be about Pat.
It wasn’t until one fateful night in 1996 after Pat’s traumatic response to the sound of a bomb siren on a televised report about the Gulf War that Grant started to unfold the story of Pat’s childhood, a story Pat had never previously uttered. Nearly two decades later, Pat’s account of evacuating her city of Portsmouth for the British countryside during World War Two is published: a touching narrative of perseverance, acceptance, growth, and friendship.
When Patricia’s seventh birthday was spoiled by England’s declaration of war on Germany, she had a vague feeling that this wasn’t the last time war would change her life. With the first German bombings of her city, school stopped and her education became very practical: this is a bomb and this is what it does; this is a siren and this is where you go; this is what evacuate means, goodbye. Patricia was given a train ticket stamped “Destination Unknown,” and sent away to a new life.
Perhaps the book’s most compelling element is invoked when Pat is sent back to live with her real mother. This event doesn’t come as the happy reunion and return to normalcy that one might suspect. Instead, we get a sense of a paradise lost. When Pat returns to her mother she feels she has been stripped of her childhood, and sees the way her mother constantly limits her sense of freedom and identity.
For a long time the manuscript ended here, until Grant realized that the war narrative was a really a story within the larger story of healing and moving on, and that’s the story she really wanted to write. That’s when she became a character in her own story, enabling Pat to reflect upon and relate these events for the first time.
After three research trips to England and hundreds of hours of discussion, Grant provides us with an elegant British story reminiscent of something by the Bronte sisters, depicting the shifting landscape of Patricia’s interior self as she experiences wartime food rationing, Mickey Mouse-style gas masks, the ruins of her neighborhood, and living with a new family in the country. The story blends the cultural history of the war with the private and familial conflicts of the protagonist in such a profound way that could only be the result of well-researched non-fiction.
This sort of creative non-fiction, depicting dialogue and events that the author was removed from, for can at times seem suspect, but each of the reconstructed scenes in Unknown have been affirmed by Patricia: “it’s like you were there! I can hear the voices,” her character utters.
With such a long and intimate relationship, Grant says that “after a while, whenever Pat was talking to me about her mother, I started to hear her mother’s voice in my head.”
War can show a person their true colors but it can also lock them away. Through retelling these events, Pat was able to see the events from a new perspective, and to finally “forgive her mother and herself.” As the book depicted, Pat had always felt guilt about what happened to her and her family. Reliving the events helped her to realize that no one was at fault.
Now that Pat has assuaged these constrictions, she globetrots, fearlessly flaunting the sense of adventure that blossomed in wartime. Of all the places she has travelled, Grant assures us that Pat likes Maine the best. “Pat thinks of Maine as her spiritual home.”
In a way, we are all headed towards an unknown destination. Grant’s latest book teaches us to to embrace whatever hand fate deals us, roll with the punches, and never let ourselves fall victim to circumstances.
DESTINATION UNKNOWN by Gay M. Grant | Maine Author’s Publishing | 236 pages | Available at MaineAuthorsPublishing.com