“The war has taken their men, but given them each other”
- Book: The Railway Girls
- Location: Manchester
- Author: Maisie Thomas
I didn’t want this one to end, as I am now left with a huge dilemma! Do I rush out and read parts two & three of this wonderful wartime saga, or do I content myself with having read such an amazing stand alone story and move on? Clearly the ending of this book begs the sequels the author has obligingly provided, however there are definitely no, what I would call, cliff hanging ‘loose ends’, to leave me frustrated and feeling as though I had read an incomplete story!
Over the years, I have read so many of these ‘homegrown’ wartime sagas, depicting life in Britain for the women and men left behind, when all those able to, had gone off to fight for their country. But never have I read such a story where the author has so obviously poured heart and soul into the telling of it. Maisie has clearly set this story in Manchester, because it is a place she knows well and she sites real and named local locations I could check out for myself, as reference points to the backdrop of narrative. The storyline revolves around the wartime work on the railway network of that city and as Maisie now spends much of her free time riding the UK heritage railway network, she brings an enthusiasm and research knowledge to the subject, which is really immersive and scene setting, without being overwhelmingly technical. Many of the local bombing raids and events surrounding the repatriation of the British D-Day forces depicted in the story, are tangibly based on true events, and a couple of the characters are based on people within Maisie’s network of friends and family. This wonderfully blended mix of fact and fiction, all adds up to an authentic and realistic experience, a story to escape into, which is told with true heart, a little humour and compelling honesty.
Maisie is definitely a consummate storyteller and the well constructed, perceptive, multi faceted, addictive storyline, was written with total confidence, passion and authority. The storyline flows along at a good pace, with the seamless chapter changes keeping things fluid. The narrative and dialogue was so visually descriptive, I could almost imagine myself sat in the station buffet, having tea around the table with Dot, Joan, Mabel and the gang, as they swapped gossip and offered moral support to one another if any of them were suffering with any aspects of their many wartime obligations, or of course, any ‘man trouble’ they might be having! They also offered one another a shoulder to cry on when the realities of war came too close to home; and when the absolute unthinkable happens, their combined strength, compassion and resilience gets them through the hard times together.
Maisie has created a cast of engaging, totally relatable, well defined and genuinely believable characters, who when thrown together in this constant state of change and flux, pull together and stand shoulder to shoulder together in the face of adversity. There are vulnerabilities, emotional complexities and those left bereft who are seeking a sense of belonging, but all are made easy to connect with, have complete empathy with, and invest it all the way.
As well as being a delightful story, this was also an important and detailed piece of social commentary, reflecting the tumultuous and far-reaching changes of the times. The evolving roles of women in society and the new respect they demanded and truly earned from their inveterate male colleagues, family members and friends alike; especially now that women took on work roles outside of the home, in what was traditionally a male dominated domain. Societal mores were challenged and toppled at an alarming rate; Oh! how lovely it must have been to be able to raise those restrictive hems to knee level, or to wear ‘slacks’ in public when you were out digging along the railway tracks, or loading the trains with parcels and packages. The long established conventions of the class divide were broken down forever; as women from all walks of life grouped together for the common good as the back-bone of the home-front, to help those who were giving their lives on the fighting frontline.
And, on a purely personal note, my own father, uncle and grandfather worked in the reserved occupation of building rolling stock to help keep the country moving, at the Swindon Railway Works, during WWII, and as they are no longer with us to talk about those times, Maisie’s meticulous research was extra special and appreciated, capturing as it did, that moment in time!