It’s springtime 1944 and two lonely people find themselves in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, both have already suffered during the war years and now, amongst the closed community of Foresters, they learn new skills while they face the next hurdle in their journey of life.
I knew as soon as I heard about this book that I wanted to read it because it is set in the Forest of Dean, the place where I grew up and in the World War II time period which is of huge interest to me, especially when it focusses on the changing role of women. Sarah Franklin surpassed my expectations weaving a story about a Lumberjill alongside that of an Italian POW.
Connie Granger hails from Coventry until the war her life was going along predictable lines, but this is a young woman who wanted more than working in the factory until she met a man and got married. Connie wants to see the world and when the Americans come to the UK there is nothing she likes more than to don her pretty dress and dance with them. Maybe one of these young men could be her ticket to seeing more than Coventry, more than helping her mother out with her younger siblings and more than the life she sees stretching before her on a path strewn with a generation of expectations. Connie veers off the path and has joined the Timbre Corps and has been sent to the Forest of Dean for her training.
The true woman finds her greatest joy in life in building up a ‘happy home for her husband and children’.
Advertisement, Dean Forest Mercury, 7th April 1944
Nearby Seppe is contemplating his fate in a truck transporting him to the POW camp at the top of a hill. Seppe carves wood, he is good with his hands and he’s relieved he has been captured. This was one young man who was fighting a war that he doesn’t believe in but that just means he also feels apart from many of his fellow prisoners some of whom hail from the same small town he does, a place where his father doesn’t just rule his family with a sharp tongue and an even worse bite; a whole community reveres the man.
So our two main protagonists have had a tough time with the causes not just created by the war when they are put to work in the Forest to clear the timber to keep up with the quotas demanded by the Ministry of War and we witness the struggle as Seppe and Connie make life-changing decisions
The strength in this book is not just the accurate portrayal of a community one that even when I lived their in the 80s was distinctly separate from those that surround it, at a time when for those living there leaving the Forest was a big deal, but also in the brilliant characters Sarah Franklin has created. Every character is special, these lifelike people take in not just Connie and Seppe, but the whole supporting cast from Amos whose house Connie lives in, a house where she sleeps in his son’s bed while Billy is off fighting his ow war, to Joyce the next door neighbour who has a heart of gold but is no pushover, all are real people with characteristics that reminded me of the older generation of Foresters that I grew up amongst. They also give depth to a story that is both emotional and yet speaks of a generation for whom duty was threaded through their bodies despite what their hearts yearned for.
With letters home from Billy and excerpts from the paper lightly scattered in between the, at times, heart-wrenching story, there was simply so much to savour and enjoy in this historical novel.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Bonnier Zaffre for an ARC of this wonderful tale that took me back to my roots (pun fully intended) and to Sarah Franklin who made me almost homesick for a place that I detested as I grew up amongst the trees and the customs. You made me recall the inevitable Dean Forest Mercury which confirmed just how little in the way of excitement was to be had and yet now, with older and wiser eyes I see the comfort in a world that was almost untouched by events outside it while the community within protected each other.