When Sydney married Laurus in 1940, she learned to cook "frikadeller and buttermilk soup and cauliflower in shrimp and dill sauce, recipes sent by Laurus' mother" from Denmark. They had a ground-floor apartment in the Village with a tiny shade garden off the kitchen. After a lifetime of edgy living with her spectacularly self-centered mother, Sydney was finally learning "what it feels like to have a happy family." Unfortunately, the world intervened.
While Sydney honed her domestic skills, Laurus, a concert pianist, "never ceased to be a man whose homeland had been invaded." The contrast between the two world outlooks shapes the remainder of this unforgettable book, as Laurus leaves Sydney behind to tend their home and have their baby, while he joins the support system for the Danish resistance.
As few novelists could, Beth Gutcheon, author of six other outstanding books, juggles the incredible, little-known story of Denmark's citizens' rescue of almost 7,000 Jewish compatriots with the story of wartime America. Laurus' family, especially his sister Nina, imprisoned at Ravensbruck, endure horrors the Americans cannot be expected to understand, and everyone is changed forever by the experience.
Gutcheon's occasional dry, even deadpan, humor lightens the atmosphere (about a mother's public display of devotion to her retarded child: "there are worse things . . . than to have a child trapped in childhood, as long as the trap is sprung after continence has been achieved and before the onset of adolescent rebellion.") What's more, her skill reaches beyond the juxtaposition of worlds, into the purely personal territory of Sydney becoming her mother, and kindly Laurus coming to terms with the results.
Gutcheon sees the human condition clearly and records it with compassionate understanding. Ugly as some of the scenes of Nazi occupation are, Leeway Cottage (named for the family's summer retreat in Maine) is a gentle, even tender book. Every reader will be the wiser for it. Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.