Reviewed by Emma Crowley
The Woolworths girls have come a long way together . . .
Fun loving Maisie, is devoted to her young family and her work at Woolworths. But her happy life with her RAF officer husband, their baby daughter leads her to think of the family she left behind . . . With the war now into its fourth year, what will she find when she sets about searching for them?
Sarah and her husband, Alan, are blissfully happy and long for a sibling for their daughter. But dark days lay ahead for this close family.
Freda heads home to Birmingham, to go in search of her family, back to the life she fled – far from the safety of Woolworths and her new friends.
With families’ separated by war, will the Woolworths girls be able to pull together?
Many thanks to from Bethan James from ED Public Relations for my copy of Wartime at Woolworths to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest is book three in the series which follows a group of women who work at or are connected to the Woolworths store in Erith during World War Two. By now I feel I know all the various characters fairly well and as Christmas at Woolworths was only published just before Christmas the recent goings on were fairly fresh in my mind. For those new to the series this book is easily read as a standalone novel as all the various back stories and events are seamlessly woven into the new story. I think this has been the best book so far, I did enjoy the book at Christmas but it wasn't my favourite, whereas here I felt the story really moved on and all the setting up that had taken place in the previous books began to bore fruit. Some storylines were finally put to bed as I think some elements of the overall story had dragged in the past. Therefore this allowed new little plots to begin to emerge and I thought it has now helped the story became fresh and interesting once again as at times in my mind it had become quite stale and repetitive.
The brief prologue opens in 1944. The war that has been raging on for the last five years seems never ending and the entire world is continuing to suffer on a daily basis. Betty Billington, manageress of the Erith branch of Woolworths. is sitting in her office chatting to friend and fellow co-worker Sarah Gilbert. Sarah's husband Alan whom she met at Woolworths and married on the day war was declared is away fighting but with the help of her friends and family she is bringing up her daughter Georgina and is now pregnant with baby number two. Betty and Sarah's relationship has developed more into a family/friend relationship rather than that of boss and worker. They and their many friends and relatives are always there for each other through thick and thin and through all the troubles and pressures that come with the war.
Their peaceful conversation is interrupted as news filters through that the Woolworths at New Cross has been bombed. Unfortunately this will have a major significance much later on in the story. The prologue ends there and we are taken back to March 1943. The last time this happened, I found the abrupt ending to the prologue, particularity leaving it on a cliffhanger and then going back a year or two to begin the story proper, very unsettling and disjointed as I was trying to piece things together. This time I was more prepared for it and I knew that the book would lead up to the events in the prologue so I was eager to see how things would connect back to the first few pages.
The first few chapters were like a catch up with old friends and it was an easy way to brush up on certain aspects of every characters ongoing storylines. Maisie is Sarah's best friend and one of those people who always seem to be so glamorous, elegant and put together despite the rations and clothing shortages. She is married to David who appears to have a very important job that we never hear much about but unlike some of the others she doesn't have the worry of him being away fighting. Maisie is enjoying her baby, Ruby, and she feels she can always call at number thirteen Alexandra Road – the home of Ruby Caselton, Sarah's grandmother, for a cup of tea and a catch up.
Beneath all the veneer that Maisie likes to portray is a person who likes to keep her past to herself and not let on just how tough her childhood really was. She fears if the truth does emerge that her marriage to David would be over in an instant. As readers we had never gotten to hear of her background until now and it was very interesting to see Maisie venture down a path with Freda, one that is necessary but will bring about life changing circumstances. Confronting the past will help her move forward but a tragic incident will help show Maisie's caring, selfless side as she firmly steps up to the plate when needed. The incident that occurs I had read about previously in some family sagas set during WW2 and it was dealt with such sensitivity, tact and honesty here and packed full of emotion.
I was glad to see that every character that I read about previously did feature again. There are quite a few to keep track of but it is good to see all included as sometimes I feel in wartime series that some characters can dominate over others leaving characters that deserve a good storyline very much out in the cold. I had thought previously that Freda needed to step into the spotlight a bit more and again as with Maisie, it was time for Freda to confront her past and put some demons to rest. Freda rents a room from Ruby and as well as working in Woolworths also volunteers as a dispatch rider in the Auxillary Fire Service. It took a lot for Freda to respond to a cry of help from her past but she did prove that family bonds and ties no matter how much hurt and pain one has been through will always exist and that you should always support those when they need it the most.
Ruby Caselton, is perhaps my favourite character with Betty coming a close second. Ruby is the matriarch of the series and is a mother to anyone who graces her doorstep. She always offers sound advice and has just the right words to use to offer comfort and solace to those who need it. She never seems to rest or even the word no does not seem evident in her vocabulary. I suppose keeping busy everyday caring for various children, renting out her rooms, helping anyone who arrives and just the genuine friendship and camaraderie that exists between herself Maisie, Freda, Sarah, Betty and Gwyneth is what gets her through the days of the war.
I really don't think that she would want it any other way. I don't think I would have been as supportive to neighbour, Vera Munro, with her sharp tongue and bad words for everybody. But now I thought her story line showed a much more softer and vulnerable side to her personality and the way that Ruby worked around Vera and her problem was a masterclass in showing how brilliant Ruby really was. I did think though leaving good old Bob hanging and not setting a date or even confirming if they were to marry was just stringing him a long a bit. I think if Bob had disappeared from her life she would have missed him incredibly. The resolution to this aspect of the storyline was bittersweet and beautiful.
As I reflect on Wartime at Woolworths, there really was an awful lot that did happen throughout this story and I think that's what made me enjoy it more so than the previous offering. Nothing much seemed to happen when we last met the women but here I was rapidly turning the pages as I became engrossed in everything that was happening. So much so that I flew through the book in two sittings. This series really does show that women were in the backbone of British society at a time when so many men were away fighting. That life took on a whole new perspective for everybody and I think they sensed that once war was finally over that they would never go back to the way things were pre 1939. I think Betty is a prime example of this. I thought she was strict, stern and dare I say it even cold hearted when we first met her but now to me she seems like a butterfly emerging transformed from its chrysalis. She has found happiness in her marriage to Douglas and just seems more amiable and approachable in general.
Sarah and co trust her now and can confide in her even though she is their boss. Her efficiency with regard to all aspects of her life serves her well in work but at home she has let some things slip through the cracks. I thoroughly enjoyed her continuing storyline, both in terms of her relationship with her stepdaughters and how the arrival of a new couple to Alexandra Road have a bearing on other major goings on. As for that delightful little snippet towards the end boy is it well deserved and earned.
Wartime at Woolworths offered so much to the reader, I had worried that I was going off the series and not enjoying it as much as I should have been but this new book thankfully quashed all those fears. There are testing times for everyone connected to Woolworths and I loved how the author shows the harsh realities of the time and is not afraid to shy away from the feelings of grief, sadness, loneliness and anger that did make their presence known at the time. But this was nicely balanced with moments of happiness, exuberance and joy and demonstrated that everyone had to take the opportunity to grab the good times when they came by during the war as they were very much few and far between. I loved the ending of the book and believe it set things up nicely for the next book, A Gift from Woolworths, which I hope will be with us before the end of the year. I hope this book will bring new readers to the Woolworths story and I do think it will delight and satisfy those who have been with Sarah and the girls right from the very beginning.
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