Primarily set in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, Martha Brockenbrough’s historical fiction novel The Game of Love and Death follows the love story of Henry Bishop, a white boy, and Flora Saudade, an African-American girl. As they discover the true meaning of love and death, Henry and Flora face the racial tensions of the 1930s, financial curveballs, and the manipulation of two immortal beings, who see them as players in a game.
In the February of 1920, two immortals – Love and Death – choose their respective players. Love selects an infant boy named Henry for his perfect heart, and Death chooses the strong Flora, an African-American baby girl.
Seventeen years later, Henry is a young man with a promising future in Seattle. Orphaned early in life after the deaths of his mother and sister due to influenza and his father’s suicide, he lives with the Thornes, a wealthy white family, whose son, Ethan, is his best friend. Henry plays baseball and also works with Ethan, helping him to write articles for Mr. Thorne’s newspaper; however, his true joy comes from playing his bass. Similarly, Flora, whose parents died in a car accident when she was young, has grown up. She works at an airfield working on and flying airplanes, in hopes of one-day earning enough to buy her own plane and win the Bendix Trophy. In order to support herself and her grandmother, she also sings at the “Domino,” a jazz club she co-owns with her uncle after the death of her parents. Just as Henry finds peace and joy from his base and music, Flora finds freedom flying above the clouds.
Across the globe in Venice, Italy, Love and Death met to begin “The Game.” For this game, Love and Death each choose a player, and, once the Game beings, the players have a certain time limit in which they must choose each other over everything else. This game has taken place for centuries with players such as Romeo, Juliet, Antony, and Cleopatra. If Love wins, both players live; however, if Death wins, which has occurred every time, she is allowed to claim the life of her player. In Venice, the two beings chose when the Game will end by rolling dice. Upon choosing the date, the names of the players are written on a sheet of paper and the Game begins.
Afterwards, Henry and Ethan visit the airstrip where Flora works to write a piece on one of the airplanes for Mr. Thorne’s newspaper. From their very first meeting at the airstrip, Henry is awestruck by Flora. His feelings for her only increase upon visiting the Domino with Ethan, where he hears her angelic voice on stage. After a failed attempt to speak to Flora after the show, he vows to visit the club every night to see her.
Meanwhile, Death takes part in the bombing of Guernica, Spain, of 1937. Disguised as a bomber, she boards a military plane and flies over the city of Guernica, unloading its payload on its citizens. As demonstrated in the novel, this real historical event claimed the lives of over 1,600 innocent people during the Spanish Civil War. After collecting the souls of the dead, Death travels to New York to claim yet another.
Back in Seattle, the Thornes announce that their cousin, Helen, is coming to stay with them. Little do they know that Death has taken the real Helen’s memories and has disguised herself as their flirtatious cousin.
On another assignment from Ethan’s father, Ethan and Henry visit the Hooverville near Seattle in order to write a story about it and the new self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hooverville,” James Booth. Due to the Great Depression, Hoovervilles, such as the one mentioned in the novel, sprung up around the country. Full of small, beat up shacks, they housed the jobless and desperately poor men who had nowhere else to go. Ethan and James, who is revealed to be Love in disguise, immediately become close.
Soon after, the Hindenburg takes flight in New Jersey on May 6. However, at her powerful hand, Death causes it crash in a flaming ball of fire and claims the lives of its victims.
Henry continues to uphold his vow to see Flora perform every night when Death, disguised as Helen, arrives. Helen, who the Thornes hope to set up with him, flirts with Henry and tries to steal his attention. Desperately in love with Flora, he avoids her. However, he still wonders if choosing Helen would be the right thing to do.
One night, Henry runs into Flora in the alley by the Domino. After the show, the two sit on the rooftop talking and eventually dancing to Flora’s soft singing. Coming down, they are caught by Grady, the Domino’s bass player and Flora’s unofficial boyfriend.
After the night on the roof top, Flora and Henry’s relationship endures many challenges. Through a series of events, Love causes the death of Grady, causing Flora to break down and push Henry away. Henry offers to replace Grady as the Domino’s bass player; however, Flora rejects him, so he leaves after playing his bass on her street, pouring out his skill and heart into the music. Sometime later, the two meet again at another jazz club, the “Majestic”, and he walks her home. Upon arriving, they discover Flora’s grandmother is dead. As he comforts her through the night, Henry and Flora develop a stronger bond, and she offers him the position as the Domino’s new bass player, which he accepts even though he knows it will be very difficult. The next day while teaching Henry the Domino’s music, tax inspectors, who tricked Flora into giving him a bride earlier, and a police officer come to arrest Flora and Henry, when he punches the inspector in an attempt to defend Flora. In jail, Henry sings a song of his own invention that eventually becomes Someday, a duet between Henry and Flora. Helen, at Henry’s insistence, bails out Flora. Flora, after stopping at the Domino for Henry’s bail money, returns to the station only to see Henry escorted out by the Thornes, who push him into a car and prevent Henry from talking to Flora. Meanwhile, Death sets the Domino on fire, and it burns to the ground.
As a result of his arrest and relationship with Flora, the Thornes kick Henry out. However, not leaving Henry completely on his own, Mr. Thornes gives him a job in the pressroom of his newspaper. Upon learning about the Domino fire from the newspaper, Henry rushes to Flora. Again, she tries to push him away because she believes they have no future because she hopes to leave one day. However, she also believes it best to end the relationship because they are of different races, but Henry reassures her that he will fight for them. Telling her he loves her, he kisses her for the first time. That night Flora, Henry, and the Domino band play at the Majestic and debut the song Someday.
However, in an effort to win the game, Death’s manipulation continues. In addition, after anonymously sending a letter to Mr. Thorne’s newspaper about how “wrong” the multiracial Domino jazz band is, Death stirs up more racial tensions as protestors crowd the Majestic. This adds further evidence to Flora that her relationship with Henry does not have a real future. Death, disguised as Helen, gives Flora the opportunity of a lifetime, which she hastily accepts; Helen becomes Flora’s sponsor and buys her a plane of her own. With her own plane and a sponsor, Flora decides to leave Seattle. Death takes advantage of Ethan and Love’s very close relationship to strongly motivates Ethan to steal Love’s book, which includes a written account of every iteration of the Game ever played, including Henry and Flora’s story. Upon stealing the book, Death shows him the contents of the book through a vision. Through the vision, he learns everything about the Game and its players except who Death really is. Distraught, Ethan writes a letter to Henry, explaining everything about the Game, which Death burns upon finding it. Also, he writes a letter to his parents and explains why he enlists in the Navy and leaves. However, sometime after he leaves, Ethan’s younger sister, Annabel, finds the original draft to the letter Ethan wrote to Henry and mails it not realizing the grave information it contains.
Soon after Helen’s offer, the famous female pilot Amelia Earhart goes missing. Earhart, the first women to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo, along with her navigator Fred Noonan went missing in the July of 1937 when their plane crashed heading for Howland Island for a refuel before completing the final leg of their journey across the globe. The disappearance of Earhart has a profound effect on Flora, who upon learning of her disappearance breaks down in tears.
While dreaming about a possible future with Flora, Henry receives Ethan’s letter. Upon reading it, he knows in his heart that its contents are true, so he uses the last of his money and rushes to the airstrip to talk to Flora and convince her to love him. When he arrives, he shows her the letter and tries to reason with her. He reaffirms his love for her and states that he will choose her over everything, but she rejects him, stating that she will not be part of the Game. Flora choses Helen’s deal and a desire to control her own life instead of Henry. As a result, Henry leaves angry and hurt, and Death wins the Game.
The moment Flora rejects Henry, Death knows she is the victor. As she contemplates the Game, she reflects on herself and realizes how different Love and she are. Calling herself “the eternal villain,” she believes she is a monster that no one will want (Brockenbrough 292). In order to once and for all prove the weakness of love, she plans to seduce Henry into choosing her. If she succeeds, she will kill him. Disguised as Helen, she visits Henry in the boarding house he lives in. Although she romantically leads him, Henry does not give into Helen, sparing his life from a literal “kiss of death.”
Back at the airstrip, Flora begins to ponder on a life she could have had with Henry. However, she stops herself, and she comes to terms with the fact that someday everyone will die. She accepts her fate and doesn’t care about the threat of Death taking her life.
The next morning, Mr. Thorne visits Henry to warn him that the Helen they thought they knew was an imposter. The real Helen was found by Love in a mental institution, for her memories were stolen by Death. After Love revives some of her lost memories, she is reunited with her parents and the Thornes are alerted to the situation. With this information, Henry realizes that Helen is really Death, so he starts to run to the airstrip to warn Flora when Love, having shed his James Booth disguise, pulls up and drives him to the airstrip.
At the same time, Death, disguised as Henry, asks Flora to give her a ride on the plane. Boarding the plane just as Henry and Love arrive, Flora takes Death up into the clouds. In the air, Death true form is revealed, and Flora, realizing what is about to take place, tries to land the plane. Death reaches for Flora to kill her, but Love enters Flora’s soul to protect her. Taking them to a place outside space and time, Death insists that Love let her kill Flora, so knowing he will be eventually overpowered, Love slips out of Flora. As Death begins to take her life, Flora see her entire life unfold, and she realizes the true meaning and “wonder of love” is the threat of loss due to death (Brockenborugh 318). She thanks Death, stating, “The Game means something only because we lose. That is your gift to humans. So thank you” (Brockenborugh 319). Shocked by Flora’s statement, Death releases her. Love further explains that without death life and love would be meaningless. As a result, Death gives Love the piece of paper that sustains the lives of Flora and Henry and instructs him to protect them. With that, the void melts away.
Henry runs to Flora, who has been placed some distance from her crashed plane. They reunite as the plane explodes and share a kiss that begins the rest their life together.
In 2015, Death and Love return to Seattle to see Flora, who welcomes them, and a dying Henry. The two have enjoyed an amazing life together, including traveling the globe and raising children. So Flora does not have to live without Henry, Death takes Henry and Flora’s souls at the same time. Finally, the Game ends, and for the first time in its history both Love and Death win.
The Game of Love and Death correlates well with real historical events and facts. For example, newspapers, most prominent form of communication in this time period, and jazz bands, which were also popular in the late 1930s, gain a pivotal role in the novel as they cause several of the characters to learn new information or met new people. In fact, without Mr. Thorne’s newspaper, Henry and Flora might never have met. In addition, the novel featured historical events such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and the bombing of Guernica, Spain.
In addition, many of characters come into direct contact with several of the issues prominent in the 1930s. For example, Flora comes faces the effects of police corruption, racism and violence towards African-Americans, and the struggles of women in a male-dominated world. The novel also explores the extreme poverty caused by the Great Depression as well as Hoovervilles, and the rise of Fascist dictators in other parts of the world is hinted at in the novel.
Primarily, the novel focuses on the racial issues and tensions between whites and blacks during the time period in which the novel takes place. The racial tensions and backlash that would arise out of a multiracial relationship are two of the reasons why Flora tries to push Henry away throughout the novel, trying to convince him and herself that they have no future together. This issue leads to questions such as: “Why were mixed raced relationships frowned upon by both sides?”, “What effect did newspapers have on racial issues and violence?”, “Where racial relations improving or getting worse during this time period?”, “How did the Great Depression affect the relationship between blacks and whites?”, and “What effect did segregation have on racial relations and tensions?” Racial tensions and issues of the late 1930s are important in the understanding of the US history of the late 1930s. They have always existed and continue to occur today. In order to get a full grasp of the atmosphere of the US during this time period, one must understand this issue. In addition, by understanding the racial issues and the relationship between whites and African-Americans, one is better equipped to understand the effects of events such as the Supreme Court Ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which furthered the “separate but equal” doctrine. Also, one is able to better understand the motivations and rationale behind the United States Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.
“AMELIA EARHART.” History, 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/amelia-earhart. Accessed 23 Jan 2018.
“Bombing of Guernica.” Wikipedia, 18 Jan. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Guernica. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
Brockenbrough, Martha. The Game of Love and Death. First edition, May 2015 ed., Scholastic, 2016.