Imagine living in a fog of fear and suspicion in war-torn Brussels during the very first years of your life.
This is the experience Francoise Webb of Harwich Port describes. Webb has written about her young years during World War II in her new memoir “Safe from the Madness.”
“It was horrific what they did—and to witness that brutality,” she said during a telephone interview last week, speaking about the Nazi occupation of Belgium. “The book is all true, the way I lived it.”
The memoir, which took Webb about a decade to write, joins a growing list of memoirs written by local Cape Codders who survived the war in Europe. In 2004 Genevieve Sparrow of Orleans (1923-2014) published “The Bastard Countess and the War” about her teens and 20s in France. In 2006 Harm de Blij of Chatham (1935-2014) wrote about his childhood in the Netherlands in “Wartime Encounter.” And in 2012 Ingrid Stabins of Harwich (b. 1928) described her East German adolescence in “Give Me Tomorrow.”
The fascinating thing about Webb’s memoir is that she was born in 1939 and during the war was younger than anyone else in this group of memoirists. Despite the grim environment, her extreme youth creates a charming and riveting narrative voice in her memoir. “Safe from the Madness” is the story of a warm and loving family who support one another and Webb during this terrifying era. A constant tension is created when Webb’s mother, grandparents and nannies try to shield her from the violence of their day-to-day life. Although the adults cover Webb’s eyes with hats and handbags and order her not to look, Webb manages to take in a lot of the horror. When they walk past a building recently flattened by a bomb, Webb asks about the little dog she used to wave at in the window. Her grandfather tells her the dog is vacationing on the Riviera.
Webb lived with her grandparents on the 10th and top floor of an apartment building. The family refers to the place as “the nest.” Her mother comes to dinner every night. Her quarreling parents divorce at the end of the war.
The book is divided into 33 chapters and runs from August 1942 to the autumn of 1949. During the war and its aftermath, the period of reprisals against collaborators, Webb and her family attempt to go about the ordinary activities of life—riding a tram, shopping for food—only to have these mundane activities interrupted by chilling events. Several armed German soldiers with snarling dogs board a tram and separate four-year-old Webb from her mother. Everyone is searched, and a boy taken away in a truck. Webb’s father endures two days in Gestapo custody, turned in by the neighbors for listening to the BBC on a short-wave radio.
Outside of the family, you don’t know whom you can trust. Because Webb is a curious young child, she sometimes acts in ways that can make the adults flinch. Down in the basement of the building during an air raid, ensconced in her family’s own storage cubicle, she stares into the storage cubicle inhabited by a young couple who drink champagne and eat finger sandwiches by candlelight. The woman wears a fox fur coat over her blue velvet robe. “Ah, la, la, stop. Stop staring, ma petite, and come inside,” her grandmother warns her. The pair seems like something from a madcap movie, living in an alternate reality. Or are they so innocent? Today Webb says she believes the man was dealing in the black market.
Webb and her family survived the war. When she was 12, her mother remarried, and they moved to Virginia, where Webb went to high school. After that, she went on to Virginia Commonwealth University. She spent a few summers in Provincetown.
“I never forgot Provincetown and the Cape,” she says. “I wanted to stay there and live there.”
But her grandfather advised her from Brussels: You mustn’t bury yourself in a remote place, he wrote. “You must go out into the world, then you can go back.” Living in New York in the 1960s, Webb wrote and illustrated seven well-received children’s books. Later she designed wallpaper and fabrics. She married and became the mother of a son, Chris. She is now a grandmother of three young children who live in California. And she did finally return to her beloved Cape Cod 25 years ago.
In writing her book about events that occurred over 70 years ago now, Webb says she was aided by what sounds like an eidetic memory. “I can click a switch in my mind and everything plays,” she says. “I will be back in that kitchen. It was like I went to a movie.” Her next projects are a translation of a journal her grandfather kept while serving as a French army officer during World War I and a book for children set in Chatham.
Webb will sign “Safe from the Madness” at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham on Sunday, Dec. 17 from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information call the store at 508-945-0144.