Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2017

Stranger in the House – Julie Summers #20booksofsummer

Non-Fiction
5*s

This non-fiction book takes a look at the women, be they wives, mothers, sisters or daughters who welcomed back their menfolk from the Second World War. How did these women adapt to the men who returned from battlefields or prisons? How did they begin to cope with all too apparent trauma that returned with them?

Stranger in the House is a collection of reminiscences about life in the immediate aftermath of the war and of the long term consequences of readjustment. There are interviews with wives, widows, sisters, daughters and granddaughters showing how this war cast a very long shadow indeed. Julie Summers has also raided the historical archives to give us the mother’s view – these poor women had often already lost members of their family in the First World War, how brave they must have been to send off their sons to another conflict.

This is a book full of details, clearly carefully researched and full of real accounts from the women who had lived, not only through the upheaval of war itself, with sometimes many months with no idea whether their loved ones are alive or not, to the aftermath with damaged men returning to families, sometimes children who didn’t recognise their fathers and all this with severe rationing in place.

“When their war ended, our war began.”

Of course the men themselves had an enormous adjustment to make and it seems like those in charge had accounted for the fact that support was needed for these fractured families following the huge failings of the First World War but this concentrated on practicalities like housing rather than what was really needed which was emotional support for the men and women who had to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The structure of the book is that the chapters relate to all the different subjects from the aftermath of war, communication and the variety of different relationships the women had with the men that returned from war.
One of the early chapters focusses on the contrast between those men stationed where the Army Post Office were able to deliver and those who weren’t. The men and women who had received regular communication on the whole fared much better than those who hadn’t.

“Letters for us stand for love, longing, light-heartedness and lyricism. Letters evoke passion, tenderness, amusement, sadness, rejoicing, surprise. And none of this is possible without the Army Post Office”

Of course some of those letters told of children born while the men were away, and not all of these could be explained in the husband’s absence. These families had a whole different struggle when the men returned and the author didn’t shy away from this difficult subject.

There is a particular emphasis within the book on those men who had been Japanese prisoners of war and it seems from the accounts in this book that many of these men were specifically ordered not to talk about their experience and of course these men often came back with serious medical problems to cope with too. The number of different voices, children at the time of their father’s return, who talk about rituals or issues over food and mealtimes is striking and so sad to read. The often factual accounts which are devoid of exaggeration or a wish for sympathy are all the more heart-rending because of that.

It is particularly touching that the last chapter speaks to the grandchildren of these men and often these children, not bought up to avoid any talk of the war, got the men to open up for the first time to their relatives and the families heard what the men had seen and heard during the six long years of war.

I don’t think I’ve read a book about war that more poignantly illustrates that for a whole generation the war was never really over.

Stranger in the House was my eighteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

First Published UK: 2008
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
No of Pages: 384
Genre: Non-Fiction – WWII
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Shelter – Sarah Franklin

Historical Fiction
4*s

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.

First Published UK: 27 July 2017
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
No of Pages: 432
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US