“The Sea Before Us” by Sarah Sundin brings into focus British cultural and historical tidbits, a mystery involving an embezzler, a World War II setting and a love triangle. It is a reminder of how America’s finest prepared for the D-Day invasion to defeat the Nazis.
The year is 1944 and the Allied forces are preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Lt. Wyatt Paxton is a U.S. Naval officer advising on how to use naval power during the assault. He works closely with Dorothy Fairfax, a “Wren” in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Her duties include piecing together reconnaissance photographs of France that include those of her own family’s summer home. These accurate maps of Normandy are used by Wyatt to create naval bombardment plans.
As their friendship blossoms, he uses his other skills as an accountant to help her figure out which employee has been embezzling from her father’s company. The tensions increase as they both must deal with enemies on the home front and abroad.
The characters are very well-developed. They share the feeling of being all alone and having a fractioned family. She has lost her mother and brothers in the war and senses that her father resents her. In the meantime, Wyatt ran from his troubles, being blamed by his brother Adler for his fiancé’s death, even though it was an accident, then stealing $2,000 from his brother Clay. Having admitted his mistakes, he is repenting by saving his salary to pay his brother back.
In the beginning of the story, Dorothy comes across as insecure, trying to be someone she is not, even going to a point of hiding the freckles on her face. She is doing this for what she perceives as the love of her life, Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence Eaton, a self-centered playboy. She looks on Wyatt as a brother and sees Eaton as a heartthrob. This romance plays out within the background of World War II and emphasizes the different cultures between the Texan Wyatt and the English Dorothy and Eaton.
Elise Cooper: Why a novel about D-Day?
Sarah Sundin: It is a pivotal moment during World War II. My family went to Normandy in 2007, and I found it more of an impressive sight than we learned in the history books. When I looked at Point du Hoc, where the U.S. Rangers scaled the cliff, I thought that someday I wanted to write about it. I was blown away by what the men did there.
After I started to do my research I found out that the U.S. Navy was very involved. I decided to write a new series, “Sunrise at Normandy,” about three brothers: Wyatt in the Navy, Adler in the Air Force, and Clay a Delta Ranger.
EC: How would you describe the hero, Wyatt Paxton?
SS: He is not a cosmopolitan type, but is from Texas. He was challenging for me to write because I live in California and am from New England stock. He is your typical older child who is quiet, and an over-achiever, courageous, humble and a man of honor. Wyatt is honest and will not flirt or play games. I based him on my two sons, who have strong character and are steady. Of course, since I am their mother, there is no bias there. (Laughter)
EC: How would you describe the heroine, Dorothy Fairfax?
SS: Kind, animated, has a sense of humor and considers herself a daredevil. Since I have never written a non-American character I was very careful to make sure I correctly had the British mindset down correctly. Her personality is prized in American culture, but the British value those who are reserved.
EC: How would you describe Lawrence Eaton?
SS: Dashing, handsome, suave, a Laurence Olivier type. He is the bad boy women like who is condescending and not very compassionate. I guess women think they can tame him, but I can easily say there is no way I would be attracted to this type.
EC: Do you think World War II is a character?
SS: Yes. I was awed by the role the U.S. destroyers had in Operation Neptune. These ships charged within 800 yards of the shore, heedless of mines and artillery, to protect those on the shore. They knocked out strongpoints and toppled gun batteries off cliffs that were pinning down the Allied forces.
I also wanted to inform readers about the “Little Blitz.” It was overshadowed by the German Blitz during 1940–41. In 1944, the Luftwaffe retaliated for the heavy Allied bombing of German cities, killing 1,500 Londoners. But it actually backfired because they lost 300 bombers, crippling the German Air Force on the eve of the Normandy invasion.
EC: One of the supporting characters, Johanna Katin, was very sympathetic as a Jewish refugee. Are you going to tell her backstory more in another book?
SS: Unfortunately, she will not be a recurring character. One of the character names in this novel was won in a raffle for the historic El Campanil Theatre in California. A winner’s father-in-law, a German Jew, fled and came to the U.S. His mother, Johanna, and his sister, Leone, were unable to leave and died in the Kovno Ghetto. I tried to memorialize them in this book. I wrote Johanna as Dorothy’s best friend and as someone who inspires her. She was not able to join the British Army because they only accepted British subjects.
EC: Do you see any symbolism with Dorothy’s freckles?
SS: In hiding her freckles with make-up she is hiding who she is. I put in the story how Wyatt thought they belonged with her red hair and Lawrence thought it dreadful. Wyatt accepted them, and Eaton wanted them covered up and hidden. It is typical of some guys who tell women, “You would be cute, if…” Dorothy also tried to be more sophisticated, molding herself into someone she is not to impress Eaton. She basically compromises herself to impress him.
EC: You explore the cultural differences with the scene of cricket versus baseball?
SS: I have been to England a few times and have heard accounts of how American servicemen regarded cricket. It was fun to write the scene where Dorothy’s father said to Wyatt, “Bah. Baseball. Barbaric game, all about power and speed. Now cricket is a game of finesse and accuracy. You play with your mind, not brute strength.”
Of course, Wyatt responded, “What could be finer than hitting a home run? Hearing the crack, watching the ball soar, seeing the infielders gawk, the outfielders run and jump and flail?”
I put in this scene because it is so American and so many of the servicemen grew up playing baseball. It was a natural cultural difference.
EC: What do you think the theme of the book is?
SS: Choosing to see the light during the dark times. Wyatt embraced the light, while Dorothy has only seen the dark. Eventually, she chooses to let the light in and decides not to focus on the negative. If we focus on both we see the true image. It is integrity and trust versus betrayal and lies.
EC: Next book?
SS: It will continue the story of the three estranged brothers and focus on Adler, the Air Force pilot. Wyatt and Dorothy appear at the end of this book as the brothers work through their guilt and resentment.