Hope for the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas – an enjoyable and enthralling read of women and the Manchester railways in Wartime

Hope for the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas 

One of the really good things about this series of excellent books about women working for the Manchester railways during the Second World War is the way it is possible to read many of the books as a standalone because the viewpoint characters change from among a group. In this particular book the main characters are Alison, Margaret and Joan, who have all appeared in previous books, but in this novel they have their moments. Although the romantic life of one of the characters is discussed in detail, it is done against the reality of war time conditions, when women as well as men were sent to places for the war effort, even if that meant leaving family and friends. This being set in the world of railways it is within the connected work of supplying food to workers of many types, even on the Pie Scheme and the Parks Department which used its space to grow crops to supply canteens. This is an example of how well these novels are researched, but the historical facts are never allowed to slow or impede the narrative. Thus another character is shown cleaning railway engines, the need to keep them functioning and how the resulting dirt was nearly impossible to clean with difficult to find soap. These are the details that keep the books realistic, while the characters are vibrantly described. 

The characters have to face difficulties throughout the novel and it is this which makes this book stand out. After a fierce dispute with her father, Margaret has to consider what is important to her, and how to carry on in the face of betrayal. The support of the older women in her life can only help so far; she needs the confidence to continue. As always, the author has such ability to enter into the heads of her characters that I thoroughly empathised with each of the characters. 

Joan has had a difficult life throughout the earlier novels, and I was eager to discover how she was coping with the challenge of a baby being on the way in a world of uncertainty and change. Her new role in the station is possible but she feels that it is not enough. She discovers that there are other things to consider, not least the effects of her difficult past (which is outlined in this book) which may well carry through into the future.

This is an enthralling book which, when I began reading it, was so difficult to put down. I found that I am so keen to keep reading to discover what happens next to each of the characters that I have become so invested in through this novel as well as the earlier ones. I am, as always, so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. It recreates brilliantly the atmosphere of wartime which was more than coping with bombing raids, even though they still feature in minds, memories and even in current experience. I found the small details of life captured in this novel so entertaining, and there are undoubtedly times when I find myself cheering when things go well. This is a thoroughly  good read which I heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys reading about women in wartime, and the challenges that faced everyone as they struggled to cope with optimism and support from others. 

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.  

The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas – three women working on a wartime railway have special challenges beyond work

The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas

The women who worked in the railways of Manchester during the Second World War did more than cover the jobs of those who had gone to fight. They were women who had family, friends and others, and in this latest novel in the Railway Girls series their loves, both obvious and secret, become the focus of the story. Not that it is all romance and peace; the war continues with regular raids in 1941 which threatens everyone in their homes, on the streets and everywhere else. It works well as a standalone novel for anyone who has not read the earlier books, while those who have will recognise the characters. This novel works because it sensitively looks at the relationships of three main characters in the context of what else is going on in their lives. It also deals with the characters who surround them, where they live, who they work with, and the urge to make the most of each day. 

The author has done an immense amount of work in finding out the big points of what was going on in the area, but also the small details of the women’s lives, the clothes, the dances and much more. Not that the research ever gets in the way of the story; it just helps to establish and maintain the characters and how they feel about themselves and others. This is an excellent read and once begun, will be difficult to put down. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

The book opens with a sort of flashback to February 1939, as Mabel endures a difficult time in her relationship with her best friend Althea.They are almost like sisters, but two separations mean that a significant problem occurs between them. Those who have read the previous two books in the series will have an extra insight into the after effects of the incident which occurs at the end of the first chapter, which I found very powerful. Meanwhile, back in April 1941 when the rest of the book is set, Joan is forcibly reminded of a family tragedy and a disturbed relationship which will lead to trouble throughout the novel. Although it is alongside her romantic relationship, the effects of a lifetime’s questions will run throughout much of this novel. Dot is the busy grandmother and matriarch of a family with typically war time problems, including the absence of adult sons and the question of whether to evacuate children. Not for the first time Dot has occasion to reflect on her own wishes which would seem nearly impossible to act upon. As always this book features the work that the women did as well as the rules they had to obey, alongside the extra risks and challenges of wartime conditions. 

This is a clever, enjoyable and often positive book of a group of women with their family and friends surviving and thriving in unique circumstances. It does not include the melodrama which features in some novels set in this era, and resolutions of situations are never dragged out. It includes a keen awareness of the social divisions suggested by clothes and other almost unspoken hints, as well as how certain characters can achieve a lot by sheer force of personality. Each character is drawn as an individual with their own identity which is a difficult thing to pull off in a novel of an ensemble of this type. Altogether this is a really enjoyable read and gives a vivid picture of women’s lives in wartime Manchester.   

Secrets of the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas – as the blitz gets worse, the women of the Manchester railways must pull together

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.