Mrs. Tim Carries On

Mrs. Tim Carries On

When I pick up a DE Stevenson novel, I know I am in for a treat. I have enjoyed almost every one of her books (and she has written close to forty!) Although her novels are called ‘light romances’, I have found her characterization to be genuinely solid, with some historical interest often thrown in amongst wry humor.

“Mrs. Tim Carries On” is the second book in the Mrs. Tim series. Book one (“Mrs. Tim of the Regiment”) introduces the character and life of Hester Christie, based on the author’s own experiences as a British military wife. In the foreword, the author explains why she continued the story:

“…it was not until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that I felt the urge to write another book about Hester Christie.

“Mrs. Tim Carries On” was easily written, for it it just a day-to-day account of what happened and what we did- and said and felt. The book was a comfort to me in those dark days; it helped me to carry on, and a sort of pattern emerged from the chaos.”

Hester has two children, the buoyant, enthusiastic Betty and her son Bryan who is occasionally away at boarding school. This novel begins with Hester having just dropped off Tim at the train station on his embarkation for France.

“Have had several letters from Tim, and from what he says there seems to be very little fighting – except in the air – and, thank heaven, very few casualties. Have decided not to mention the war in my diary – or at least only to mention it as it affects me. Diary is to be an escape from war (if possible).”

But this resolution does not last long. When Tim doesn’t return from Dunkirk and there is no confirmation of his death, Hester is left to ‘carry on’ with her family life as best as she can. There are other military wives in need of Hester’s aid, there are tea parties with Polish refugees soldiers, and small intrigues with military families. Hester keeps busy with visits to the sick, shopping for the Barrack’s Christmas party, and encouraging her friends, finding that sometimes, first impressions are not always correct:

What a curious thing it is to look at these men! They are exactly like regular soldiers who have been in the army for years. They have the same habits, they have the same faults. A year ago – or less in some cases – these men were clerks, bakers, chauffeurs and a hundred other things, but they are soldiers now. They are cheery, irresponsible, vocal and sentimental; they grumble and swear; they laugh, they swagger a little – and why shouldn’t they swagger? Tony says they’re tough, and I can believe it.”

I don’t want to give away any spoilers as you will enjoy reading this world-war-two-era novel for yourself! Many of the author’s books are hard to find and out of print, but some titles have been reprinted and you can often track the others down. For myself, I find them to be light comfort reads, enjoyable and satisfying.

“News today most cheering. Roosevelt in, the Greeks doing well, and London free from air raids. I put on my coat and trip down to the Barracks, feeling on top of the world.”

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Minding the Manor

Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid

“Everyone that knew me knew that I couldn’t resist a dare.” Mollie seems to be constantly accident-prone, getting herself into scrapes climbing trees, stealing strawberries and evading the local village bobby. Suddenly Mollie turns fourteen and it’s time to find a job.

Learning early on that higher education for her impoverished family is out of reach, she rejects the offer as seamstress in a ‘dark, closed’ shop and finds work in London as a scullery maid. Right from the start Mrs. Jones, the cook, instructs Mollie about the fifteen- hour work days, the tasks awaiting, and the behavior expected of her.

“At the end of my first week I was filthy, not to mention so dizzy and exhausted, my head seemed to fall through the pillow. It was Friday night. If I’d been at home I would have helped Mother shop in the market, scoffed sweets, and been licking my salty lips from the fresh kippers we’d have eaten for tea. My brother would be splashing about in the tin bath in front of the fire now.

I pictured Mother’s face, sitting down for the first time all week in front of the crackling fire in our cosy cottage. I missed it so much I could almost hear their laughter, taste the smoky, warm kitchen.”

Mollie’s spirit remains unbroken although her brief bout of homesickness diminishes when a new housemaid comes along to share a room and companionship. Flo quickly enters Mollie’s world and a long friendship begins that will last eighty years.

Mollie Moran is feisty, fun-loving, and cheerful. Her memoir is full of interesting anecdotes of what it meant to live and work as a servant for the upper class in pre-World War 2 England. She writes quite openly about the class system and the changes the war ushers in to English society. Although sometimes her humor is a little bawdy and she tells it like it is, occasionally exposing the seamy side of her experiences, this is a fast, interesting read and her courage in perseverance and hard work is admirable.

“Everything had to be done in a particular order too. You couldn’t just get to it when you fancied. Each hour of each day was strictly accounted for and the routines of kitchens in the old days wouldn’t be out of place in Her Majesty’s army. I certainly worked like a soldier, that’s for sure. And if I was the soldier, Mrs. Jones (the cook) was the culinary equivalent of a drill sergeant.”

Not just sheer drudgery though, Mollie finds plenty of opportunities to go dancing (although not always sanctioned by the cook and butler). Mollie’s adventurous spirit is undimmed by convention and she and Flo resort to climbing down the fire escape in order to attend a dance on a cold foggy night.

“We weren’t really rebellious, just high-spirited and desperate to get out and see and experience life. Working fifteen hours a day in the kitchens under the stern and exacting eye of an all-controlling butler and cook made life a bit claustrophobic at times. All we wanted was a little harmless fun. I doubted very much they’d see it that way, mind. We had deliberately defied Mrs. Jones’s orders and in 1931 that was a crime punishable by instant dismissal.”

There are long rides through the English countryside on her bicycle, and shopping expeditions in London with Flo, and as time progresses Mollie finds romance and her dreams for a husband and family are fulfilled.

“Minding the Manor” includes photos from Mollie’s album and also contains a recipe at the end of each chapter along with a household hint, shared along with several cooking ‘secrets’. I was so intrigued by Mollie’s story that I decided to read her friend Flo Wadlow’s “Over a Hot Stove” just as soon as I can obtain it!

 

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Winter Birds

Winter Birds

Sophie Hess is the last of her family. Her parents and both sisters have been gone for some years now. Reduced to the realization that she will soon be cast upon others for her aging body, she comes up with a solution (after all, she *does* have her pride). Sophie will *not* resort to a nursing home and so she sends out letters to extended family; ‘two nephews, two nieces, and one great-niece’ – offering in exchange ‘my money for their food and shelter’. After travelling to each home and a short stay, she chooses to board with her nephew Patrick and his wife, Rachel.

“Patrick’s words come back to me: ‘It was less than a week later that we received a letter from my aunt Sophie concerning her need for retirement accommodations.” I turn around to look at the living room of my retirement accommodations. What a grandiose term for such a house. I take in the old piano, the faded pink sofa, the large framed print of a lighthouse, the worn braided rug, the small tacky Christmas tree. Yet I prefer the retirement accommodations here at Patrick’s house over those in what they call a ‘home’ or a ‘facility’.”

Sophie’s life has not been ideal. She holds no pretensions about humankind: her dislike of Patrick and his verbiose self-absorption is all too evident. She does seem to like Rachel a little better, but her initial thoughts are revealing: “I know that Rachel cannot be as good as I imagine her to be. One does not live to be eighty and still harbor delusions about the fundamental goodness of mankind.”

Some readers may call this novel depressing. If the focus were only on aging, musings upon past resentments and bitterness, the hurts dealt upon us from those we love, and the slow passing of the days with television shows for company and only our meals to look forward to, we might agree. However, as the story progresses, Sophie’s life begins to unfold. Each memory is peeled back layer by layer and the reader begins to appreciate her character, her humor (although quite sarcastic at times), and her resilience. Yes, Sophie at first does seem bitter and resentful. She is certainly not optimistic nor outgoing, and she tends to avoid conversation with her caregivers, neighbors, and even those sitting next to her at the dinner table. But as we learn more about both Rachel and Sophie, their story leads to an appreciation of the surprises life itself holds in store.

Rachel has her own hurts to overcome, with a recent tragedy shadowing her days. Rachel’s character, though, in contrast to Sophie (although her losses are huge), is never objectionable. Although she has trouble sleeping at night (and who wouldn’t in her circumstances), she is never mean-spirited and doesn’t seem to tire of bringing Sophie her meals or washing her clothes (perhaps unrealistic? nonetheless, admirable). Patrick steps in occasionally and orders Rachel to ‘take a nap’ and then Sophie must endure his tiresome company at lunch time.

When neighbors move in next door complete with disabled child and a troubled teenager, Sophie, a retired teacher, is called upon to help tutoring and life begins to change for both her and Rachel.

I love all of this author’s writing, and although this book is a little slow-moving at times (there is a lot of soul-searching and musings), I marvelled at the author’s clever twists and references to literature. Not a fast or light read, but not overly dramatic either, “Winter Birds” is insightful (the birds that Sophie watches at her bird feeder each day correlate with the events in each chapter), with hidden nuggets of meaning for the reader to find in both plot and personality. This book won yet another Christy award (the author’s first Christy award for “A Garden to Keep”) and Publishers Weekly lists “Winter Birds” among the best 100 books of 2006.

If you are looking for a thoughtful, quiet read with hidden lessons to be uncovered, you will enjoy “Winter Birds”.

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A Chelsea Concerto

A Chelsea Concerto

Frances Faviell is a Red Cross worker in London during World War 2 and “A Chelsea Concerto” is her memoir of her wartime experiences.

Written in a chronological form, the book begin with practices for a ‘real’ air raid, carries on through the period of the “Phony War” (when many in England felt that the war was just going to peter out), and then the war itself. Story after story is related here as personal lives are abruptly interrupted when war is declared.

There are trains evacuating and re-evacuating children (because, during the Phony war, many of the children were sent back home … and then evacuated again), and civilians are requested to leave the trains free for departing soldiers. Parents watch their children depart in crowded, confusing train stations for safer country homes, wondering if the separation will be permanent. Soldiers leave for France (and some don’t return). Refugees arrive from Belgium, France, and the Lower occupied countries. And then the Blitz begins.

When the refugees begin to arrive in England, Frances, gifted with languages, works as an interpreter and assists in finding them homes, food and clothing. She is invaluable to many of those trying to carry on a normal life in the midst of chaos, suffering, and loss, and yet she retains a sense of modesty and self-abasement through it all.

“I worked for a long gruelling day until relieved by another Flemish-speaking nurse late next evening, and this time the misery and wretchedness of displaced humanity was one of sheer stark horror. And yet I could not look at all the grey tired faces of our own troops without intense wonder and gratitude that they were home – that with the horror of bombing and machine-gunning which had accompanied them – the RAF covering them and fighting for their protection all the way – it was surely nothing short of a miracle that such numbers were safe on their own shores. The troops had learned not to talk – not so the civilians. They poured into our ears tales of Dorniers, Messerschmitts, and Heinkels attacking them…”

The Londoners attempt to carry on normal life and their spirit seems unbroken even in the worst of situations. I found myself caught up more and more in this story, staying up late to read just one more page! However, this is not a light, pleasant read (just in case you are hoping for one…) Even though there are some happy times; parties, weddings, and new close relationships forming, there are no pretensions here, nothing glossed over or hidden in a sugar-coat of optimism.

The author does write about the courage of many but she also reveals the struggles that naturally arise among close quarters. There are arguments, complaints about the food (natural considering the shortages), and even an incident of suspected favoritism (over the size of allotted garden plots). The author, being a translator, is often called upon to settle these battles but when nothing else works, the police are occasionally called in to arbitrate. Both major and minor events are in the lives of those so pressed at such a challenging time in their lives are openly portrayed.

“Mr. Churchill had said that he promised us nothing but ‘blood, tears, toil, and sweat’. The Blitz was certainly bringing the blood, tears, and the toil, and it seemed to be bringing a great deal of dirt to some of us. When I stopped to think of the disgusting and revolting chores which the war was meaning for me I often rebelled violently, and wondered if a Florence Nightingale role really appealed to me – I loved fun, and was considered frivolous by my family. There were days when I felt I didn’t want to do one more thing for one more refugee or one more bombed-out person, although they compelled my compassion…”

The author writes realistically, openly and honestly about not only the incredible difficulties of this time but also the resilience of the human spirit.

“I had seen my friends in the height of the Blitz battling amongst those four things promised by Mr. Churchill, and in my much-travelled life I have never been more thrilled and amazed by their heroism. The quietest and most unexpected people seemed endowed with the courage of lions and the endurance of steel. Tireless and undaunted, they knew no thought of self as they faced fearful odds in the battle to save their fellow-men and their borough from the destruction from the skies.”

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Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart

Noel Bostock is ten years old and he has no family. His godmother, Mattie, is a wonderful caregiver for him except… she is beginning to forget things. At first it’s just things like the name of the church they can see on their walks to Hampstead Heath (St. Paul’s Cathedral). But then it progresses and Noel writes words on labels and tapes them to objects like Mattie’s shawl.

Mattie has taught Noel many things, and after a while their roles are reversed. Even though he’s only ten he’s pretty self-sufficient… but then she begins to skip meals and stay in bed. And then one day she leaves the house and doesn’t come back.

What will happen to Noel?

Noel is a great kid; not very attractive and not well-liked at school but smart and quick on his feet. When the children are evacuated (because of course this is a novel set in World War 2, one of my favorite time periods to read about), Noel is one of the last two children to be taken in. And what a character Vee, his new caretaker is!

“What do you mean, you were wrong about me?’

Well, I…’ Vee huffed a bit, searching for an answer. ‘…I didn’t think you were all there,’ she said, finally.

He turned and stared at her. ‘You thought I was feeble-minded?’

‘You had a bit of a blank look, that’s all. And you didn’t say much, did you? And you packed a fur coat. In June.’

‘Not for wearing,’ he said. ‘It’s a memento.’

‘And the rock?’

‘A memento mori.’

‘And there you go! she said triumphantly. ‘That’s why you can’t do the talking. Every time you open your mouth, out comes Latin.’

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even with some raw and difficult situations (the bombings, the lack of empathy in some of the characters, the ‘every -man -out- for- himself’ philosophy so evident in some characters). I found I was there with Noel, experiencing hunger, fear, and wishing I were back with Mattie. I became angry for Vee at the way her indolent, selfish son Donald took advantage of her. And in reading this book so quickly (I couldn’t put it down!), I wondered at myself, since this isn’t usually the type of fiction that engages me.

That the author can create such quirky, believable characters is only part of her talent; the atmosphere itself is so realistic; the bombs falling, babies crying, the darkened streets suddenly illuminated by flares and the crowded, uncomfortable shelters. And as Noel’s circumstances change (and he changes with them), paralleled by Vee’s own deteriorating life events, their developing relationship brings a much-needed freshness to them both.

Perhaps it is because I admire reading about the sheer resilience of the human spirit and the creativity that some are gifted with. (Although, maybe creativity isn’t such an admirable trait when it comes to deception …) When coupled with the sheer determination to survive, I wonder at the ‘guts’ some folks have (and I know that for myself, I could never take those steps… or could I?)

 

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Welcome Friends

welcome

I see some new followers have come along.  A warm welcome!  May you enjoy reading, writing, and reading some more, as much as I do!!!

Some books leave us free and some books make us free.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.

–C.S. Lewis

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?

–Henry Ward Beecher

The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.

–W. Somerset Maugham

There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read.

–Gilbert K. Chesterton

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Child of the River

Child of the River

Persomi is born into a poor white sharecropper’s family and has little to look forward to in her struggling life. When she discovers that her violent, abusive father is not her biological parent, her life begins to take a turn. Persomi learns to stand up for herself, the complete opposite of her complacent mother, and thus her personal battle to earn acceptance and a place of her own in society begins.

Although her life seems bleak on the outside, she has two sustaining factors; one is her mountain to where she runs for refuge, and the other is her older brother Gerbrand.

“Her mountain was ancient. Unchanging.
Her mountain had deep crevices and tall, hard cliffs. The crevices lay sheltered in cool shadows, the cliffs stood proud and warm in the last rays of the sun.
Her mountain was always there. Always. The river could run dry, the moon could darken, the trees could shrivel and become firewood and vanish into ashes – her mountain would remain.”

When the Second World War begins, Gerbrand enlists and is sent first to fight in Abyssinia and later to El Alamein. Persomi continues to write to and receive letters from her brother and the correspondence is her lifeline while she attends boarding school and learns how to use a knife and fork for the first time.

The author describes her own experiences with young girls like Persomi: “At school I knew many Pérsomis: girls who sat with me on school benches, shared dormitories with me at boarding school. They had never before slept on a bed, bathed or showered in a modern bathroom, nor knew how to use a knife and fork. These were the needy children who were handed down charity clothing and who had to collect state subsidised textbooks in front of gawking class mates. Their fathers were drunk weekend after weekend and their sisters were pregnant by age fourteen. My heart went out to them instinctively.” (from http://www.historyandwomen.com/2016/1… )

The reader’s sympathy is immediately drawn to Persomi and her fighting spirit. Persomi is smart, athletic, resilient, and able to maintain her composure when confronted with difficult situations. She finds solace in her friendships, and her success in the academic world prepares her for future encounters in her law career.

This book is not just about a young girl overcoming difficult circumstances, however. The theme of apartheid and prejudice is also addressed and illustrated in volatile situations and various characters, some of whom become Persomi’s friends. I learned much about the history of Africa and its laws, certainly enough to realize that I have a lot of reading still ahead of me to understand the complications of this turbulent period in Africa’s history.

This book had me transfixed from the very first page! I became so absorbed in the story and lives of the characters, I could not put this down.

“Child of the River” has it all… intriguing and likable characters, a captivating plot, and a satisfying conclusion. My daughter gifted me with a copy of this novel and I’m so glad she did!

Highly recommended.

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