Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Germany, 1939: Eleven-year-old Frieda is boarding a ship bound for England with her little brother, Kurt. Life at home is perilous, with synagogues set alight and innocent lives lost to the Nazis, and they have no choice but to flee. But as Frieda stands on the deck crammed with frightened children, her brother jumps off, back to land.
England, 1939: After a devastating childhood at Blakely Hall Orphanage, seventeen-year-old Sandra longs to put her past behind her. But when war breaks out and her brother Alf is sent to fly bombers, she’s completely alone.
1943: When Sandra and Frieda’s paths cross in the remote countryside, each girl finds a home at last. Facing long, terrifying nights in bunkers, they huddle together as planes roar above them and distant explosions shake them to their cores. They console one another – Frieda, with no idea whether her family have been captured or if her brother survived, and Sandra praying that Alf will live to see tomorrow.
The darkness of war may shroud them but as long as they have each other, they can keep a little light in the world. Will Frieda and Sandra ever be reunited with their loved ones? And will the two handwritten letters bound their way hold news of happiness… or heartbreak?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Outcast Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Shirley Dickson's new book The Outcast Girls. It was just that little bit different to some of the more recent historical fiction that I have read and I found it quickly got to the heart of the story and its themes. It had such depth to it and dealt with some serious issues which two young girls were experiencing during the war years. Both are from different sides of the spectrum yet over time and through a moving and interesting journey they come to realise their lives mirror each other in many ways. The friendship and moving similarities between the two slowly became apparent and in turn become the main focus of the book.
Both Sandra and Frieda go on an incredible journey and this is certainly one book where you could see the voyage and transformation unfolding beneath your eyes. It was so well written with such a clear, concise beginning, middle and end with real changes occurring in each section. Even if I did think the very end, as in the last two or three pages, was slightly abrupt and even an end note with a page or two would have wrapped things further together even more. The two girls we meet at the start are vastly different to those we meet at the end and their metamorphosis through the help of love, support and simply getting out there in the world and doing their bit was a joy to read.
Chapters alternate between Sandra and Frieda and I loved how each girls perspective gave us such a well rounded view of the story as a whole. The prologue introduces us to Frieda, it is 1938 and Berlin is a city on the edge. Frieda's family are Jewish and have suffered the wrath of people on the night of Kristallnacht. They fear for their lives and steal away to a place of safety but with tensions rising and they do not know what the future will hold. Their father decides to sent them away to England where a group called The Movement for the Care of Children from Germany are helping children under the age of 17 to escape until it is safe to return.
Frieda and her younger brother Kurt are sent away but Kurt jumps ship in Holland leaving Frieda alone. This abandonment will wear away at Frieda for the years she is in England as war rages on all around her. Leaving her family, and in turn Kurt abandoning her and she herself doing nothing to stop it, will have such a profound affect on her that guilt, fear, anger, sadness and distress all become commonplace emotions that she can never shake off. Fast forward to 1943 and Frieda is living with Aunty Doris in the country village of Leadburn, although not related by blood the two women have gotten to know each other better over the years since Doris took Frieda in. They have a good bond but Doris wishes they could be closer as Frieda bottles so many things up. You couldn't blame Frieda for being wary after all she had left her family and homeland behind and does not know what has happened to them. The guilt she feels at not doing her best to keep Kurt with her, or even to follow him, just keeps eroding at her leading to some devastating consequences.
Now she has just left school and despite being still relatively young she feels it has not done much for her due to the bullying she has experienced. No doubt about it, Frieda has had it tough and all she has been through affects her state of mind and well being. An issue begins to make itself apparent and to be honest I had given scant thought to such a thing occurring back in the war years. Said problem is more prevalent today so I thought it was brilliant that the author brought our attention to something and showed that it can happen to anyone and at any point and place in time.
Throughout the story, you just feel an overwhelming sadness for Frieda as she can't see the good qualities about herself of which there are many. She is on a destructive path and those around her begin to see it and want to try and help her but Doris can't even reach beyond the walls that Frieda has established around her. She develops self loathing at what she believes to be her cowardice but I felt she was placing such harsh judgements on herself when there was no need to. Of course she should pine for, and worry about, her family but her parents sent her away for a reason and if they knew the state she had gotten herself into they would have been distraught.
It's when Freida begins work on a local farm and in turn the arrival of Sandra to work as a Land Girl that she begins to open up but it is not without its difficulties and matters of the heart slowly begin to come into play also. The friendship that develops between Frieda and Sandra was a catalyst for change in both their lives and it kept me reading even quicker to discover would there be a happy ending or would things turn even further sour with more heartache to come?
Sandra was a brilliantly crafted character. You could really see this young women go from being meek, afraid and sub servant to an impressive person who knew what she wanted in life and her confidence just seemed to grow and grow. Having been raised in an orphanage with her younger brother Alf due to the loss of their mother and their father being ill and then going straight into service, Sandra had not much worldly experience in many matters and it showed. The fact she was so innocent and couldn't stand up for herself said a lot. There were two characters mentioned when talking about the orphanage and I went back and checked. They were from the authors first book and the little connection between them and Sandra was a nice little added touch.
An unfortunate incident leads to Sandra leaving her employment as a housemaid and although it was traumatic and devastating at the time maybe in the end it was the best thing that could have ever happened to her. It spurred her onto make changes and with the help of Olive Goodwin, the cook in the house, she got some small bit of courage in order to buck up and make the necessary changes in her life. The biggest one being that she applies to be a Land Girl. Being a townie she knows nothing about the countryside or farming but all that is about to change as she arrives in Leadburn and stays at the hostel established for Land Girls who come from all over the country.
Similar to Frieda, Sandra was so down on herself and it was simply because she didn't have the courage and confidence. There was something major holding her back and we all take this thing for granted every minute of every day of our lives. Coupled with the worry of not knowing what will happen to Alf during the war as he is fighting with the RAF, Sandra takes time to settle into the rhythm and pace of village life. She really is like a fish out of water but I admired the fact that she just kept going and she became eager to learn everything in order to better herself both mentally, emotionally and physically.
The little lost girl from the orphanage who has been institutionalised all her life certainly underwent many adjustment and developments. But it was all handled so carefully and sensitively but it never felt forced or rushed or that it couldn't be within the realms of possibility. Initially, there was a certain naivety about her and a reticence but when she strikes out of her own that's when she comes to the fore although as with Frieda she goes through some tough and challenging times and you do wish she would see what was before her very eyes and not let a certain opportunity slip through her fingers.
The Outcast Girls was a beautiful story and one I very much enjoyed reading. As the line on the front cover suggests this is a heartbreaking and gripping story that I am glad I did not miss out on. Shirley Dickson has created two believable characters who really get under your skin and you feel every bit of emotion they go through. I feel privileged to have journeyed with them and The Outcast Girls has reminded me that Shirley is a historical fiction author who is not to be missed.