The watcher in the Pine by Rebecca Pawel

THE WATCHER IN THE PINE is the third novel in Rebecca Pawel’s series set in Spain during, and immediately after, the Spanish Civil War. Carlos Tejada has married Elena Fernandez, been promoted to lieutenant and given his first command within the Guardia Civil. Elena is pregnant and somewhat conflicted about her husband’s posting. The village of Potes is a remote outpost in the Picos de Europa mountains of northern Spain. They arrive in a blizzard; there’s no decent rooms available at the post, so the Tejadas settle in at the fonda of Barbara Montalban.

Elena soon senses they are in unfriendly territory. The Civil War is over, but the maquis, the guerillas, operate in the pine forests that flank the mountains. Barbara Montalban’s husband is missing, her son dead at the hands of the Guardia.

Carlos takes command of the small force assigned to the area. His predecessor met an untimely death at the hands of the maquis; his second-in-command, Sargeant Marquez seems more interested in Elena’s ‘red’ background; she’s a university graduate and a teacher and hails from the Republican city of Salamanca. Cut off and isolated, Tejada begins to investigate the theft of dynamite from a job site in Potes.

Elena sets off to a neighboring village to locate a carpenter. They need furniture and bookcases; her loneliness is accentuated by her sympathy for the ordinary people of the Deva Valley. The war has left them designated as a devastated region; every family has lost someone to the fighting or the Fascist arrest squads, led by the Guardia.

Rebecca Pawel weaves her narrative alternating between Elena’s point of view and Carlos.’ The story is rooted in the setting and the setting is more complex than it first appears. Secrets and dangerous passions fuel a hidden life in the sleepy hamlet; the force Carlos commands is vulnerable to betrayal by the local people as well as the forays of the maquis. The discovery of the body of a local man triggers the central action. The manner of his death and the subsequent discovery of a cache of sub-machine guns set Carlos and Elena on a collision course with the sinister Marquez. A kidnapping, a gunfight, and the unique terrain conspire to test Carlos as a man, a leader and as a husband.

THE WATCHER IN THE PINE has a very different feel from the series first novel, THE DEATH OF A NATIONALIST. Madrid has been left behind; a few years have passed, but the civil war’s aftermath takes on a new personality in the remotest part of Spain. It’s clear that the author intended to create an ongoing arc for both her main characters. She succeeds not only in creating an intriguing story, but captures the essence of their relationship. Elena serves as their conscience and Carlos is not always pleased by her empathy for the people whose lives are altered by the turmoil of war. The details of their family life offer a view of marriage where the battle often rages in silence. The moment of crisis between Elena and Carlos comes at the worst possible time for both of them; each of them faces death alone and desperate.

The complexity of the plot dictates the book’s deliberate pace. Ms. Pawel doesn’t rush us through the set up, but pays homage to the subtleties of life in Potes. The reader is drawn into this layered world, its manners and constructs, extended families and long memories. The story is flush with wonderful characters in a harshly vivid landscape. World War Two rages beyond the Pyrenees without much direct impact on this insular backwater of Europe.

THE WATCHER IN THE PINE is another strong performance by Rebecca Pawel. Read the book and hunt down her other titles, although it might be best to read them in sequence.