Christmas at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – a book of life, not just Christmas
In spite of the title, this is not a book based on Christmas; only the last chapter occurs on the actual days themselves. This is a wartime saga about a group of women, their loved ones and the lives they lead relating to a branch of Woolworths in Kent during 1942. It is the second in the popular Woolworths girls series, and it is an undoubtedly an enjoyable novel with many dramatic events. Not an unhappy saga in most ways, but full of human interest as a group of women and some men experience life and love on the Home Front. While there are undoubtedly challenges, tensions and fear, this is a positive story of relationships which have developed under the most difficult of circumstances.
As the book opens in June 1942 with a Prologue in which the youngest of the girls, Freda Smith, is riding a dispatch motorbike towards the bombed city of Canterbury. Two of the women who work at Woolworths are known to be there, but prove to have been caught in an enemy action. The narrative then returns to Easter 1942, as manager Betty Billington is locking up the Woolworths store, and reflecting that the War may soon be over as the Americans have entered the battle. Sarah is keen to invite her to her grandmother Ruby’s house, where as usual a group are gathering to eat a meal. Ruby enjoys welcoming all comers to her home, which is fortunate as not only Freda lives there, but her son George often stays there while working locally. Sarah actually lives with her husband Alan in his mother Maureen’s house with their small daughter Georgina. Maureen is an essential worker at Woolworths, running the café, and all the women visit each other frequently. More difficult characters like Vera challenge the comfortable group, which is sometimes threatened by loss and the risk of some individuals taking on more active war work. Although new people such as the attractive Gwyneth are welcomed in, it appears to be a full time job keeping up with the whereabouts of the women as they are torn between the needs of their families and the demands of the war on everyone. As often the case, Everest is better when writing about the local area rather than elsewhere in the U.K., as a journey to Cornwall takes on a strange adventurous nature. There are movements between the houses as the war takes its toll on the arrangements of all. Romance is found in unexpected ways after sad disappointments, and there is some satisfaction when the American forces are seen not to be all they first promised.
As with all Elaine’s books about the Woolworths Girls, I really enjoyed the whole group dynamics explored in this book. She is such a skilful writer when it comes to varying the personalities of the girls, and it definitely makes the book very readable. Not that this book is all about the younger women; Ruby is a fascinating and steadying character in the novel. There is a certain amount of melodrama here, but it is all to the purpose of the novel and is always well handled. This is a saga about the time of the Second World War, but it is not a war book and there is far more about the relationships. Apparently Elaine has not finished with this series, and I look forward to reading further adventures.
So that is the final book I have read with Christmas in the title for this year! It is a bit misleading in this case, but I suppose it has value in describing a winter themed book. I have some other interesting books to review coming up, including the wonderful Jeanette Winterson’s small but powerful “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”. I also have a truly amazing “The Call” by Edith Ayrton Zangwell published by Persephone, which will take some reviewing as there is so much to say about a 1924 book featuring an incredible woman based on fact. Oh, and an essay, teaching prep and….Happy New Year!