The Bletchley Girls collects the reminiscences of fifteen surviving women who worked at Bletchley Park. Now in their nineties, they recall their various experiences living and working at BP. For some, it was the defining period of their lives; for others, a mere blip in a long and interesting career. Everyone's Bletchley was different. Some found it friendly and relaxed, others intimidating or dull.
This sounds like a wonderful idea for a book. Unfortunately, the material for The Bletchley Girls ends up being a little, well, thin. The author quotes from interviews with her subjects, comments on what they've said, and editorialises and theorises about it. This means that the chapters become rather repetitive (not unlike the work of Bletchley itself!). And sadly the actual daily work these women undertook was mostly very boring. Though the image of BP is glamorous and exciting (code-breaking! espionage! winning the war! top secret!), in reality, the women had very little idea what they were actually doing there until decades later. They functioned as unwitting cogs in a giant machine. Though the stories of the interviewees' individual journeys to BP and their lives afterwards were marginally interesting, I didn't feel that I learned much I didn't already know, and the author's style is journalistic rather than academic (not a plus for me!)
So my World War II binge has ended on a rather anti-climactic note, I'm afraid.
Jambusters is the story of Women's Institutes during the Second World War. Though it was a voluntary and notionally pacifist organisation, its immense reach and breadth meant that it became the focus of many home front activities, from welcoming and housing evacuees, to making millions of jars of jam to prevent food wastage, to knitting garments for servicemen, even doing laundry and mending for local battalions. Salvage, growing vegetables, making toys, skinning rabbits -- all this on top of the usual work of caring for the family and often running a farm or business, with the men absent, as well as keeping up morale by running village entertainments like dances and choirs -- and enduring the terrors and privations of war with a calm and cheerful demeanour!
I came away from this book breathless at the sheer amount of work (all unpaid, mind you) that these incredible women were expected to shoulder. And many rural women were living in housing without electricity or even running water! Bloody hell. I can tell you, I was counting my blessings after this one. Full of wonderful details of daily life in war time, this would make a fantastic research resource. And it highlights the value of friendship and community which was the silver lining to all the suffering that they endured in six long years of war.
PS I forgot to say that I was particularly intrigued to discover that one of the founders and stalwarts of the WI was a woman called Grace Hadow, who came from the Gloucestershire village where my aunt lives, South Cerney. My aunt tells me that the Cirencester branch of the WI that Hadow founded was unique in being based in a town rather than a village. And my grandmother was secretary of the WI in Crudwell for many years. No wonder I enjoyed this book so much! It's in me blood.
Reading this book was like sinking into a comfortable old armchair. In some ways, it's an old-fashioned odd couple story: A shy evacuee is billeted with a crusty old countryman, and as their friendship deepens and young Will settles into the community, he discovers gifts and strengths he never knew he had. So far, so predictable. But in other ways, this is quite a dark and disturbing tale. The background is the outbreak of World War II, with bombing raids and the threat of invasion in the air. More troubling is the character of Will's abusive, mentally ill mother. The severe abuse Will suffers at her hands is balanced by sunny excursions to the woods and the scenes of childhood friendship (though this too is touched by darkness).
I have previously read Magorian's later novel, Back Home, and there were shared themes with Goodnight Mister Tom -- the wartime setting, the saving power of art, an abused or neglected child, even the charms of an isolated cottage in the woods, are common to both books. I also really like the unconventional minor characters, who could so easily have been stereotyped figures -- like the trouser-wearing, smoking doctor's wife, or colourful Zach, the flamboyant child of theatrical parents.
It was just as good the second time around: punchy, powerful, pacy. The inexorable slide from prejudice to genocide is just as terrifying, and Vladek's refusal to surrender, his determination to survive, is astounding. This time I noticed more of the details of Vladek's story, the twists and turns along the way: a betrayal here, a bargain there, friends who appear and disappear, acquaintances who inexplicably manage to survive, relatives who are equally inexplicably slaughtered.
Alice had to read this for school and though she is not usually a fan of graphic novels (she finds them confusing and distracting to read), she thought Maus was great. It packs a hell of a wallop into an easily digestible package. A modern classic.