The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson – a wartime novel of the people who fought to survive a war and the library which opened books to all (with factual extras)

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson

This is a novel that has a clear message – libraries are great and reading is for everyone. It is specifically about a little library that was established in Bethnal Green tube station during the Second World War. In this fictional version it is run in 1944 by a young woman, a widow, Clara Button, with the assistance of the remarkable Ruby Munroe. It is shown to be a vital part of a huge air raid shelter that was established in the station by locals, despite the protests of the authorities to begin with, and it has saved many lives in an area that suffered greatly in the Blitz and continues to be a vital refuge for families and other civilians. It is set after the terrible disaster which overcame some two hundred people in March 1943 when a mother and child slipped on the stairs and caused a major pile up of people in which many were killed. The effects of this accident are felt most deeply by Ruby in the novel, though of course it became a terrible secret which destroyed many families while being kept quiet by the authorities. It is one of the many elements of real historical facts which are successfully blended into the narrative, allowing Kate Thompson to capture some of the anguish and upset experienced by the people of the East End of London. The presence of so many children in the shelter is another remarkable tale, especially as Clara has such determination to open the world of reading for them through the wonders of books.

This is a terrific story with a brilliant setting above and below the streets of London which are rendered almost unrecognisable by years of bombing and destruction. The shelter is very well observed with all the facilities including a dizzying number of metal bunks so that hundreds of families, couples and individuals could sleep in safety over a period of years. There is also a theatre and places to eat apart from the library. The latter is shown as a centre for everyone, as anyone can sign up for a ticket, borrow books or to an extent, find a quiet refuge to read. Clara is responsible for establishing a story time for children every evening which welcomes children of all ages to listen to a story as well as finding encouragement to enjoy reading. Clara is a remarkable character who has lost her husband before the book begins and comes under a lot of pressure from her family and in laws to give up work, especially following the destruction of the original library where she worked. Even though she is determined to make the library a special place, she attracts the attention of a man in authority who wants to dictate what happens in the library. It is fortunate that she has the unwavering support of many people, including Ruby who is the vibrant young woman who demands attention, especially from men. Ruby has family issues including the death of her sister Bella, and seeks to avoid thinking too hard about the past. She is deliberatively provocative in her support for Clara, and a memorable character in her own right. As most of the men at this time had been conscripted into various military forces, this book focuses on the women and children who bear the brunt of wartime trials. I really enjoyed this fictional saga, and was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The other element of this paperback edition which I found absolutely fascinating is the large section at the back which gives the historical facts behind the story, including the wartime provision of books from various sources, and how they were vital to the war effort, even listing the titles that were especially in demand. It looks at how libraries around the countries survived and some of the dedicated people who made sure that access to books continued. Thompson has undertaken a lot of work in relation to libraries especially over the last few difficult years, and throughout the novel there are positive comments about libraries gleaned from her interviews. This section of the book would have justified the cost of the book alone, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the social history of libraries in this country. Altogether this is a book which I am so happy to have discovered, and that I cannot recommend enough.