The Woolworths Girls by Elaine Everest – The start of a series

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This is the first book in the Woolworths series, and having read the third novel before it, this book answers a lot of my questions. The community of women with some additional men forms very quickly, then changes, develops and reforms. This is as a result of several things: war, romances and some very deep feelings. The background of common employment in Woolworths draws some very disparate people together and the beginning of the Second World War means that some are sent away to face unknown dangers. There appears to be room for the joyful, the worried, those who have been alone and those who have always been loved. It is a sort of soap opera, very melodramatic, but the author manages to keep it under control well. In some senses it is comfort reading, well written and reliable in maintaining interest; indeed, preventing sleep as one more chapter seems so attractive.

This book shops the assembling of three girls as they all seek employment at Erith’s branch of Woolworths. Sarah is the much loved granddaughter of Ruby, thoughtful of others and showing great ability. She quickly attracts the interest of Alan, trainee manager of the shop, who gradually reveals his secrets. Maisie is newly married, seen as glamorous owing to her dressmaking skills, already fed up of living with her mother in law. Freda, the youngest, has escaped from her abusive stepfather and arrived in the town looking for Lenny, a much loved but troubled brother. Ruby also has George, Sarah’s father staying frequently. At various times the various girls move in and out of Ruby’s house, as social events centred round the shop come and go. Betty Billington is the assistant manager of the shop, who comes to reveal her sad past as she becomes closer to the girls. As war approaches the girls find love and affection for the shop, but the demands on them and those they are close to brings some anxiety and even sorrow.  Music, clothes and the dangers of being on the home front run alongside the drama people change and various people come and go from Ruby’s house.

This book benefits greatly from being only the first in a series of books which is evidently going to run for a while, so many of the ends of the story do not have to be tied up. Having said that, many elements of the story are resolved and this book stands alone in many respects. The way is left open for several sequels however, as the characters have emerged as more than interesting enough that one wonders what will happen to them in the future, and the time scale of quite early enough in the war leaves many possible avenues open for peril!  This is a most enjoyable read, and I recommend it as a substantial novel which goes far beyond just a romantic drama.

My trips round bookshops continued on Tuesday with a visit to “Bookwise” in Newark. We arrived fifteen minutes before it closed (we did not know it existed – Newark is a confusing place!) so it was a bit of a supermarket sweep situation. Northernvicar found many lovely books, I found some really old hardbacks, as well as a copy of Everest’s “The Butlins Girls”. Now just to find somewhere to put them all. Bookwise is a charity shop which has branches locally, raising funds for local music making by children and young people. The Newark branch is due to move apparently; round the corner. If you find yourself in the area, why not have a look? See their website here

Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

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This is the sort of book which is partly comfort reading, partly melodrama and essentially a family saga. It is about people who behave predictably in a particular setting, this time war time Kent. The idea was originally that three girls are brought together by their common employment at a branch of Woolworths, but by the time of this third book in the series the links between the original girls are so complicated by common friends and family that it is difficult to see the characters that the first book was based on. It is quite complex, as part of the action takes place out of the immediate vicinity of the shop, and a knowledge of major events of the time helps to make the narrative and some of the emotions demonstrated clearer.

The story opens with Betty who is running the Erith branch of Woolworths in conversation with Sarah. The action then leaps backwards to a few months before when these two women are dealing with the crisis, and minor drama of life on the home front, when Betty has been promoted to manage the store, but is dealing with a staff shortage brought on by the absence of men who are fighting in the forces. Also the original Woolworth girls are distracted by young children and family pressures, despite the efforts of Ruby who appears to be some sort of universal grandmother. Two of the three girls decide to go back to their places of origin to try and discover what remains of their families, in London and Birmingham respectively. Both searches result in drama and long lasting repercussions as wartime problems claim the full attention of the reader. Based on an actual tragedy in London, there are few happy outcomes here. The various generations of the women are complicated, and their trials and tribulations are interwoven. There are happy moments of survival and joy, as well desperation. All matters are quickly resolved and while melodrama is the order of the day, there are happy human elements of joy and relief throughout.

This book is really a sort of soap opera in novel form. Everest undoubtedly creates characters who have a variety of emotions, and the wartime setting gives a lot of scope for dramatic incident which she takes full advantage of, and not in the most obvious way. Some events are difficult to believe in objectively, but the whole is a pleasing and slightly addictive narrative. The interlinks of people are a little difficult to keep up with and various generations are mixed in confusing ways, but as this is the third book in a series many readers will have a greater knowledge than I have of the setting and people described. Many of the characters are more than happy to help in the most difficult of circumstances, and in many ways this is a positive book. I was happy to read this review copy of the book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to sit well in its genre of twentieth century saga featuring women in difficult circumstances, and it is generally a positive read.

I asked for a review copy of this novel as I too was a Woolworths girl: I had a Saturday job in a large branch clearing tables in the cafe. I learnt various things, such as how to eat left over cream cakes in record time, and how to deal with awkward customers. Much of my earnings subsidized my book habit! This was an addictive read, and I freely admit to tracking down a copy of the first in the series!