Growing up in Alabama, Allegra Jordan witnessed her fair share of what she calls "catastrophic stressors." A military brat whose father served in Vietnam, Jordan saw firsthand the traumas caused by wars both at home and abroad — especially in the racially divided Selma of the 1970s. And the difficulties didn't stop there. While in college at Samford University, Jordan was dealt a shocking blow when her debate partner was brutally murdered by her debate coach in a tragedy that's often referred to as the 1980s' "crime of the decade."
These experiences led Jordan to ask herself, "How does a person deal with an issue when bad things happen?" The answer, in part, comes in the form of her debut novel, The End of Innocence, a love story set during World War I. The first half of the novel was inspired by Harvard, where Jordan attended business school. Self-described as "one of those college kids who attended church," Jordan says one day while in church in 1991, she was taken aback by Harvard's Reverend Peter J. Gomes' sermon. In the sermon, he referenced a church plaque dedicated to students who died in World War I — including those who fought for the Germans. Jordan was surprised and intrigued by the idea of honoring both sides of a conflict. The sermon, she says, gave her hope. "I spent most of my formative life in Alabama. I had never experienced the kind of memories they shared in that church. I realized there is more than one way to deal with issues," she says. "The way Harvard dealt with the catastrophic stressor of World War I was a way I found beautiful, supportive, and forward-thinking." The idea for a book was born.
She started researching. And writing. She says that her hometown and its community was always in the back of her mind. "I wrote this for my beloved community in Selma. I wanted them to have more examples of how people can handle traumatic events," she says.
The End of Innocence is a project 20 years in the making. "Motherhood and being a businesswoman slowed me down," she says, "but not that much." And in comparison to her subject matter, 20 years isn't that long. Jordan points out that England is still dealing with its World War I debt. "France's heart is still broken from World War I. So compared to that ... 20 years isn't so bad," she laughs. The novel was actually completed in 2004, but because of the lack of a market for historical fiction, Jordan had to wait a decade to publish her work. She thanks shows like The Tudors and Downton Abbey for re-opening the market for these kinds of stories.
The End of Innocence is based on the plaque that Reverend Gomes mentioned in his 1991 sermon. Jordan thought it would be interesting to have a German soldier as one of the main characters, showing the war through a different perspective than American readers may be used to. The novel's omniscient narrator is based on the preacher and is a voice that is both a removed observer and self-aware insider in Harvard's world.
The story follows Helen Brooks, a spunky New England girl who, because of her father's connections, is allowed into an all-male class for writers. By the time readers are a few pages in, most will realize where the plot is going: Helen meets a quiet German poet, Wils Brandt, and his playboy British cousin, Riley Spencer, and the three engage in a short-lived love triangle. Helen's initial attraction to Riley is spoiled by her deep longing for the soul of Wils. In what may read as implausible to some readers, Helen and Wils fall quickly in love, leading to an engagement just days before he's shipped back to fight for the kaiser.
Jordan realizes that she has made two characters fall in love at what seems like warp speed, but given the time in which they were living, she doesn't think this is that much of a stretch. She points out the hurried timeline most soldiers faced, enhanced by the uncertainty of their futures. She also points to the vulnerability of Helen, a young woman with distant parents and an isolated existence in a male-driven world. "With Helen, we have a connection [to Wils] in a world that doesn't have any sparks," says Jordan. In other words, with Wils, Helen feels something she fears she may never feel again with anyone else.
The novel is well-researched (a decade of writing will do that to a piece of work), and is broken into three parts — before, during, and after the war. While The End of Innocence could read as sentimental or heavy-handed — and yes, at times, it does — the novel mainly stays the course of bittersweet realism. Not everyone comes home from war.
Jordan will be reading excerpts from her novel at the Circular Congregational Church, a place that, with its outlying graveyard, is a fitting location to speak about memorials for the dead. The author's talk will include information about Charleston, a place she feels is still recovering from the Civil War. Like Boston, a city she is certain has progressed greatly since its World War I days, Jordan believes that other cities can recover from their pasts as well. "Over time things can get better. We can get better, and become more open-minded," she says.