Secrets of the Railway by Maisie Thomas
Dot, Joan and Mabel are the Railway Girls in this extremely vivid and engaging book set in Manchester in 1940 to 1941. They are women from different backgrounds, different ages, and they have links with some of the other women who work on the railways in and around Manchester. This is the second book which tells the stories of these women and their friends, yet because the narrative is so well constructed it could be read and enjoyed first. The experiences of the women are overlapped well to maintain the pace of the novel, giving different aspects of the way women worked in roles usually assigned to men. It also looks at the realities of life in a city which had an intense Blitz to contend with over a few nights. All of the women in this novel face challenges, some tragedy, and a working together which can help. Romance, humour and friendship are the positive elements that keep this book entertaining; the research into the actual mechanics and events of maintaining travel and transport under pressure makes it a good solid read. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book begins with the redoubtable Dot as she begins to organise a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas for her family, especially grandchildren Jimmy and Jenny. Not that she confines her efforts to cooking and cleaning, shopping and queuing for her family, she has become a solid support for her friends on the railway. Her husband is still as trying, as he expects her to have his meals ready despite all her other tasks, but at least he is now doing ARP work. Dot finds that she has to use her initiative in her work, but also to investigate something which is troubling her. When problems affect those around her, she tries to be a practical help.
Mabel is still a sensitive young woman with past regrets, but is a strong friend when others suffer loss and need practical assistance. While she and Harry make a beautiful pair, everyone has troubles and challenges to face at this difficult time. Mabel has to act not only for herself, but also for those who struggle with the after effects of the bombs that fall.
Joan’s experiences in this book at times threaten to overwhelm her, as she faces discoveries and decisions that have enormous impact on her life. Her friends and colleagues offer her support, but there are certain decisions she must make for herself.
This is a book which finds its strength in the group of people that work together in strange times. There are many books which deal with groups of women on the Home Front during the Second World War, and this one is so successful because it deals with women of different age groups, and the differences in class, dress and opportunity in a positive way. The clothes of the period are carefully and consistently described to show the different backgrounds of the characters, and it is obvious that the author enjoys these details, a fact which is noted in the back of the book. I enjoyed reading this book for its consistent effort to make these women and those around them seem real, living people with their own distinctive personalities. This is a book which works well on many levels: as a sensitive and lively study of women in a unique set of circumstances, a time of danger and tragedy, and difficult decisions to be made of life and love. I recommend it as a thoroughly good read.