Christmas with the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas – three women face real challenges in wartime Manchester

Christmas with the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

I read a lot of books, but it is this series that keeps me awake at nights – in a very good way – because I simply cannot bear to put the latest one down! This wonderful book is the fourth in a series, but because it focuses on previously minor characters it works as a brilliant introduction to the other books. It is a lively fictional account of women who worked on the Railways of Manchester during the Second World War and the deep links of friendship that  hold them together. It deliberately mixes women of various ages and backgrounds, and handles with great sensitivity the issues of different classes in this particular book. It also tackles the subject of the enormous uncertainty of when the next air raid will happen, as dramatic raids have focused on the railway tracks, bridges, stations and marshalling yards. I enjoy these well researched books because Thomas never pauses the narrative to insert bland facts; information is relayed because it supports and enhances the story. The story leads up to Christmas, and it certainly can be enjoyed at other times of the year. The three vividly drawn characters at the centre of this novel are Cordelia, Alison and Colette, who have previously been on the fringes of the action and now are featured with their particular challenges. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The book opens in June 1941, with Cordelia working hard checking and cleaning the vital signal lamps along a railway line. Married to Kenneth, a solicitor, she would have been expected to take up war work in a more “genteel” way, such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or WVS, but she loves her work and is proud of making a real contribution to the war effort. Early on the welfare officer who dealt with her intake of women workers told them to ignore class distinctions and stick together, and the women had fortunately taken that advice. Cordelia was particularly close to Dot whose down to earth nature had benefited several of the women, especially the younger ones. When Cordelia’s daughter Emily arrives home, the loving mother hopes to introduce her to the group, but things are not that straightforward. Meanwhile Alison continues to wait for the proposal she knows will be forthcoming from her long term boyfriend Paul; in a time of quick marriages she feels that she has been waiting for too long to be married and preparing to be a wife. She builds up her hopes and efforts for a charity ball as the time for Paul’s declaration, and yet surprises occur. Colette is a wife already, with a husband who seems to be attentive to a fault, and she is beginning to realise that what goes on behind closed doors can be as destructive to happiness as more obvious challenges. If only she can work out who to confide in, and find an opportunity, it may offer some hope. 

This book works so well because of two elements, its context in a city where danger can be real at any time to anyone in a war on the Home Front, and the challenges that are faced by women at any time. Cordelia seems to have it all, the wealthy husband, the lovely home and the much loved Emily. Only she can make the decision whether to maintain the links of friendship that have changed her so much. Alison’s life is changed in a short time in a way that is certainly not limited to wartime, and she must decide how to go on. Colette’s secret is perhaps better recognised in the twenty – first century, but is no less severe for being unlabelled in 1941. This is a beautifully written book which I really enjoyed, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the lives of women in wartime, as well anyone who enjoys reading of excellent characters in an historical setting.  

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