Courage and Despair – A novel of mystery and intrigue during 1940s wartime

Local author, Lee Johnston, not only weaves together the characters in her latest novel, but she also captures the essence of war time in the 1940s.

Written in the unusual first-person, ‘Courage and Despair’ tells the [fictional] story of Alice Cunningham, a dedicated nurse in small town Ontario, Port Elgin, when war breaks out in Europe. Working tirelessly with the local doctor, she excels in midwifery but as the young men begin to leave for service, it is obvious that childbirth is on the wane.

When Alice’s young brother, Billie, comes of age he is excited to sign up for duty and the family is devastated.  Alice however, tries to keep a stiff upper front as she realizes her young brother is excited to begin an adventure … an adventure that would have dire consequences.

Johnston taps into the anguish that many families must have felt as they saw their young men heading off to a war halfway around the world, not knowing if they would ever return.

Johnston has also brought out that the 1940s were also a time when women were expected to marry and have children, and not a career. For her character Alice however, it would become an escape from the expected, and from a home headed by a bitter mother who continually berates her daughter’s appearance, and a near-alcoholic father.

Being encouraged to marry one of the town’s most eligible bachelors, Alice has misgivings and makes the sudden and unwelcome decision to instead enlist in Britain’s Nursing Sisters with the hope of nursing at the war front.

Johnston has obviously well-researched the background for her novel.  With an intimate knowledge of place names in Bruce County to descriptive situations that take her central character Alice, by train and ship to a hospital in England, Johnston’s writing takes the reader along with the character into the Blitz of London, where the tunnels of the tube become refuge from the bombings overhead and the desperation of the English people is palpable.

With mystery, murder, war-time mayhem and, of course, love, Johnston captures it all with her intriguing characters and several plots that come together in a surprising ending.

Although fictional, the reality behind ‘Courage and Despair’ makes it a ‘must read’ for those with any family connections to World War II.

With Johnston’s Bachelor and Master of Arts (English) and Certificate of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, it is no wonder that ‘Courage and Despair’ is so well written.

‘Courage and Despair’ is available at the Bruce County Museum, the Southampton Fitness Centre or by direct contact at email: