A Man Called Smith by Tanya E Williams takes us inside a dysfunctional, blended family in the nineteen fifties and sixties. John Smith was just a newlywed when he volunteered for service during the Second World War. Seeing action on the beaches on Normandy and beyond, John survives but is plagued with nightmares and survivor guilt when he returns home to his bride and daughter, in Cedar Springs, South Dakota. Despite John’s trauma, the future looks bright for these childhood sweethearts as they await the birth of their second child. When John’s wife, Violet dies in childbirth his whole world crumbles around him. Alone and bereft of the love of his life, John sends the children to live on the farm, with his parents while he tries to drag himself through his insufferable grief. When John meets Bernice, it seems like all his problems can be solved. She’s not Violet (but then nobody ever could be!) but she could be the wife and mother he and his children desperately need. What neither he nor his children realise is that Bernice’s first, second, and third priority will always be, Bernice. So begins a downward spiral that will see all the participants sucked into this dysfunctional family and trying desperately to survive the angst and abuse that come their way.
Author Tanya E Williams tells the story of A Man Called Smith, through the eyes of two protagonists and through two time periods. John and his daughter Calla recount what it was like to, first lose their wife and mother and then how John’s marriage to Bernice drove a wedge between Calla, her brother Jarred and their father. The three boys born to the second union would fare marginally better at Bernice’s wicked tongue and hands than would Calla and Jarred but nonetheless they would also struggle with their mother’s vicious temper, belittling, and sarcasm. The character of John was an enigma in many ways. He was a strong, resolute and proud man but the war had instilled in him a belief that fighting achieved nothing, so he was always slow to rock the boat, to stand up for his children against “mother”. As a reader one wanted to seriously kick the man’s butt and tell him to stand up to the vicious, old slag. I’m sure that’s the reaction the author was looking for, so kudos to her for that. The style is simple, readable and somewhat relatable, although John antipathy to arguing seemed to stretch the bounds of probability at times. I found the story was fairly predictable at times and seemed a little formulaic for my liking. That being said, there is much to be had from the messages imparted by the characters, especially about the nature of war, the complicity of silence and the sheer lengths people will sometimes go to, to achieve peace – whatever the unseen costs of those accommodations might be. I understand this is the third in a series of stories around these characters so it may be that a reading of all three stories would open up the characters more and allow the reader to fully grasp the dynamics of this strained family relationship.