Emmy, a young teenager living in London, loves to draw. She loves looking in shop windows at beautiful wedding dresses, and so she especially loves to draw wedding dresses.
Emmy spends hours designing beautiful white lacey, frothy creations that she saves in her portfolio, hoping to someday market her drawings and become a bona fide designer. The problem is, with an irresponsible and often absent mother, Emmy has a younger sister, Julia, that she becomes responsible to care for.
Because she is only fifteen, Emmy is considered a child, and so, along with Julia and hundreds of other children, she is sent to the country to escape the wartime bombing.
Will Emmy ever find a way to pursue her dream?
Set in World War 2 England, this novel explores many themes; resilience in wartime, acceptance and loss, choices and pursuing one’s dreams in spite of obstacles, preserving and maintaining complicated family relationships.
“Mrs. Crofton set her pen down. “War makes brides as easily as it makes widows, Miss Downtree. And do you know why?”
“Because people still fall in love?” Emmy said hopefully.
“Because people need to believe love is stronger than war. A soldier marries before he marches off so that the ring on his finger will remind him who he is when he’s crouched in a trench with his weapon raised to kill.”
In the pursuit of her dream, Emmy is going to make a decision that will forever endanger herself and her younger sister. It seems selfish and self-serving, and yet the point the author makes within the story is that often we are acting without foreknowledge. Emmy could not know of the danger ahead when she chose to forsake the home in the Cotswolds.
It is possible that Emmy’s art is an outlet for her, a way for her to pour herself into her creations and sublimate the love and acceptance that she feels missing from her mother. It is also possible that it is that search for acceptance that is the driving force behind the choices she makes in this novel. However, Emmy will discover eventually that there are worse things than losing the chance to pursue a career.
“She sheltered during air raids under the sewing machine at the bridal shop, covered in a dozen wedding dresses. She found she much preferred taking her chances under a table with easy access to the street rather than huddled in a claustrophobic shelter below ground. A bona fide shelter was no guarantee one could survive a bomb…
After a few weeks…Emmy began to forget her old dreams, and in the forgetting, she found a numbing emptiness that she welcomed. The wedding dresses that had at one time entranced her were now wrinkled, smudged, and smelled of smoke and ash. And yet they protected her, cushioned her, were nearly a wall against the forces of evil.”
I loved the character of Charlotte (who takes in displaced London children)! She is kind to her charges, wise in dealing with them, and thoughtful. She makes a true home for them and portrays the gift of hospitality in a wonderful way.
“Charlotte rested her hand on top of Emmy’s. She flinched at first. “You, as Isabel, are more than welcome in my home,” Charlotte said gently. “Thistle House is for people who love and care for one another. We respect one another in this house, Emmeline. We carry one another’s burdens. We weep for one another and we laugh with one another. We hold one another by the hand when the lights go out and when the way seems hopeless. We work together and we share the table together and we pray together. No matter how old we are or what we are called”.
She waited for Emmy to respond that she not only understood but was also willing to abide by this contract. Emmy hesitated only because she had never known a house like that. It wasn’t that mum was a terrible parent. She just never said words like that to Emmy. She didn’t think Mum believed she was capable of creating such a home.”
This part of the story was my favorite part and I am tempted to think that Emmy’s choice later, to leave to pursue her meeting with a famed artist so that she can get her foot ‘in the door’ for her chosen career, is unrealistic. After all, this is the first real home Emmy has ever known.
“They turned down a narrow gravel path wide enough for only one car, which, after a slight curve, led to a house constructed of Cotswold stone, with wood trim painted forest green. Climbing roses rioted across the front gate and ivy crawled up the sidewalls. Gabled windows on the second story window boxes of white and pink geraniums. A brass oval nailed to the stone framing the doorway read THISTLE HOUSE. IT was such a charming, storybook place that Emmy instinctively reached into her skirt pocket to touch the ticket stub from Paddington station and the key to Primrose nestled behind it. She needed to remind herself that she really had awakened that morning in London…”
“Paved in Cotswold stone, the little terrace where they sat sipping tea was surrounded on three sides by more trees, flower beds, a sizable vegetable garden, orchard trees, a chicken coop, and, beyond the perimeter of Charlotte’s property, a murky pond that ended in reeds and a horizon of pearl-blue sky.”
Doesn’t that sound like the idyllic home?
There were some things I took issue with, especially in this ‘gently Christian’ novel. For one, there was no remorse on the part of the mother, either for the burden she placed upon her older daughter, nor for her chosen affair with a married man. The wronged wife was portrayed as harsh and unforgiving and is abrupt with Emmy, but considering that her husband had had a mistress for so many years, can one blame her?
However Meissner’s writing made this time in history come alive for me and I enjoyed the descriptions, especially of home life in the English countryside.
I stayed up far into the night to read this book!