Muddy Boots and Silk Stockings by Julia Stoneham

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Muddy Boots and Silk Stockings by Julia Stoneham

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Slightly clumsy, yet still endearing novel that transports you back to the hardships and joys of World War Two Land Girls.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Allison and Busby
ISBN: 978-0749079093

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During the Second World War many women in Britain were seeing their men leave them to go and fight, but Alice Todd finds herself abandoned by her husband for a younger woman. She has to find a way to support herself and her young son, Edward, so she applies for the post of Warden on a farm, taking care of a group of young women working as Land Girls. Mostly the horrors and tragedies of war seem very distant to the girls as they struggle more with the horrors of sharing bath water, their blisters from hard farm work and living in a cold, isolated farmhouse. However, even here they find that they aren't protected from the hostilities, and the tragedies that enter their lives serve to bring them closer together as a make-shift family.

We meet a wide range of characters through the story as the quiet warden Alice faces up to the challenges of mothering eight very different girls, from loud and loose Marion, pacifist Georgina, bullying Gwennan through to introverted little Hester. Little visual details are often noted about the characters, helping to create pictures in your mind of each one.

However, there were moments when the writing seemed a little clumsy, with perhaps too many different story lines being thrown in together. The focus wandered, and at the end I found myself unsure as to who was intended as the 'heroine' of the piece as having thought the book was about one person it then appeared that perhaps it was about someone else entirely. I was reminded of Maeve Binchy's novels as she often uses a whole cavalcade of characters, but she's always very clever about weaving the story lines in together and somehow making them all well drawn out characters. In this book I sometimes felt like paragraphs, and characters, were being thrown in for the sake of it, rather than because they particularly added to the story as a whole.

The story was very evocative of the period though, and Stoneham captures the differing social classes and the changing roles of women brought about by the war. The farmhouse became a very real place in my mind, and I enjoyed the feeling of how it developed through the book from a cold, damp, neglected building into a home. The trials and tragedies of the women make for good reading and I was conscious throughout the book of stories from my own family of how many women went out into work, often hard labour, for the first time because of the war. As you can imagine there is a lot of talk of food, however I was surprised at how well the girls all seem to eat. Perhaps because they were living on the farm that meant they had better access to food supplies, but they didn't seem as badly affected by rationing as I've read in other stories.

There are a couple of places where tragedy strikes and I didn't feel quite the shock I was perhaps meant to. I think this was because of the issue with some characters who weren't fully developed, and so it was hard to feel sympathy for them. In other cases, however, I did feel moved by events in the story. The differing views on the war and pacifism were interesting, and I very much liked the development of the friendship between genteel Alice and her rough, salt of the earth assistant Rose.

Overall I did enjoy the book, but I feel that I've read better period novels, such as That Summer by Andrew Greig. This felt like the sort of book that would be nice for a holiday read, but it isn't something I'd want to go back to and read again.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Another beautifully evoked WW2 period piece is La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith.

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