Great Escape

Almost a Great Escape, was a delightful, chance encounter. I ran across this book at a farmer’s market, for the second time in as many years, and this time took the effort to track the book down at my local library.

Written by a Calgarian, Tyler Trafford, it tells the story of his mother, Alice Tyler Trafford. Alice was a Montreal belle in the 1940’s. Beautiful, creative, intelligent, she attracted the attention of a lot of men. One of these was Jens Müller, a Norwegian pilot training in Canada. These two fell in love during the few short weeks Lens was in Quebec. After he left for Britain they corresponded frequently. Jens always promised he would come back for Alice. It was a typical WWII love story.

Alice’s mother, an extremely controlling and insecure person, was determined that her daughter would never marry someone so “beneath” her as a military pilot. She manipulated events to the point of Alice becoming engaged to a British oil engineer.

In the meantime, Jens was shot down over the English channel. At first taken for killed, he was later found to have been picked up by the Germans and imprisoned in a POW camp for airmen. Alice and Jens were able to write a few letters to each other during this time, but very infrequently. Alice was suspicious that her mother intercepted at least some of these letters.

Jens was in the camp where the “great escape” of movie fame took place. He was quite instrumental in engineering the tunnel enabling the escape. When the night came for the escape attempt, he was around 13th in line to go. Seventy six men escaped. Only three made it. Fifty were executed; the other 23 were sent to various other prison camps.

Jens was one of the three who made it out. He managed to get safely back to Britain, and then to Canada. There he found Alice already engaged to Ted Trafford. Under the severe domination of her mother, Alice felt unable to break this engagement. So they went their separate ways.

The author, Tyler (given his mother’s maiden name), had a wonderful upbringing, despite what turned out to be an abusive, dysfunctional marriage between Alice and Ted. Alice gave Tyler a lot of freedom to explore; he grew up with a good deal of self-confidence and a sense of adventure. He also watched his mother descend into a pit of substance abuse and depression.

Upon her death, Alice bequeathed to Tyler a box – a Campbell’s Beef Noodle Soup Box – full of old letters and photographs. At the very bottom of the box he discovered what he came to call the “Jens Album”. It contained all the letters she had ever received from Jens, and a few old photos. Tyler had never known of this prior love of his mother’s, and he began researching. What he discovered led to the writing of this account of his mother’s life.

The book is an absolute delight to read! It is written very poetically and creatively. Tyler paces it well, going back and forth between the 1940’s, and other periods of Alice’s life, plus his own recollections of his boyhood and adult-life interactions with his mother. His research took him to Norway, where he found Jens’ children and learned about the life Jens led after leaving Canada and Alice.

The book is at once sad, and yet so full of love. It is a delightful love story, but also a story poignant with the loss and separation caused by war. It is a story of what might-have-been. It is part heart-breaking, and also a son’s tender account of what became an increasingly dysfunctional life. “She had 41 years of dying ahead” (p 17) Trafford says of his mother. Such a sad waste, caused by an evil bitch of a mother. Alice’s mother obviously cared for nothing other than her own perception of success. She cared nothing for her daughter’s happiness.

I was constantly aware that this was my parents’ generation. Although my own family story is very different, it was the same time period. There are many such stories from that era. And I wept to think of how many lives were warped by war, by insensitivity, by insistence on appearances.

I urge anyone, of whatever age, to seek out this book. You will not be disappointed.