Saturday, February 9, 2019
The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review
WWI had a devastating effect on England’s population of young men, and with the flu epidemic right on its heels, fewer and fewer men were available to work the farms, run businesses, and follow in their father’s footsteps. It was an unprecedented time of loss and change for all, during the war and after. Young women who had previously been in well-defined roles according to their class in society found themselves coming together to fill the void on farms, in industry, in family-owned businesses, and as medical personnel both on the battlefields and in the hospitals. And, with the blurring of societal lines came a new independence for women, though not all of it was by choice. It is into this vortex of change that Rhys Bowen drops readers, into a story where one woman goes from coddled to scrambling to survive. The Victory Garden is that rare look inside the crumbling of an ordered world where the rules were set and adhered to, with everyone having a predetermined role, to a world where coming together to defeat an enemy brought people in contact who would never have met or interacted before. The heartbreak of so many fine young men dying and leaving widows and girlfriends and children behind forced a new way of thinking that only the young could fully embrace, but to survive and thrive embrace it they did.
Emily Bryce has just turned twenty-one in 1918, and she is champing at the tight bit her parents have held her in during the Great War’s ravaging of England’s human and other resources. She longs to be a nurse at the front like her best friend Clarissa, but she knows that her parents, after losing their son in France, couldn’t bear it. Emily meets an Australian pilot who is convalescing from injuries in a house next door, and he encourages her to strike out on her own and do her part, if she so desires. She does so desire and, against her parents’ wishes, she signs up where she is most needed, as a “land girl,” helping out farmers plant, harvest, milk cows, slop pigs, and any other task the young men of the country used to do. Staying in a central housing arrangement with other land girls, Emily gets to know and appreciate women from different walks of life. She also has opportunity to visit her Australian, Robbie Kerr, who has been moved to a hospital near her boarding house. Before Robbie gets sent back to the front, he proposes to Emily and she joyfully accepts. Another aspect of the war, love on a fast track.
While Robbie is back in the air fighting the Germans, Emily receives an assignment to attend to the grounds of an old Devonshire family estate. She and two other girls, with whom she’s become friends, are happy to have a place of their own to stay and work for a while in a storybook setting of undiminished beauty. All three young women quickly feel comfortable in the small village, and Emily especially feels a connection when she finds the journal of a former occupant of the stone cottage in which they reside. The journal and herb garden attached to the cottage provide purpose and strength when Emily is faced with devastating news and no longer has a home to which she can return after her land girl duties are over. The war has left her with an uncertain future and a growing responsibility. The locals allude to the ghosts of the stone cottage in which she resides, curses upon its inhabitants, and Emily comes to learn that those whispers must be addressed if she is to have a chance of creating a new home for herself and her child.
The Victory Garden is already a top favorite of my reads this year and in overall reading. Rhys Bowen captures the tragedies and hardships of the English people during WWI on a level of realism that places the reader in the minds and hearts of those struggling on the home front. Readers are connected to the characters through the characters’ thoughts, actions, and dialogue that move the story along a path of intense impact. Although not a history book, The Victory Garden provides those revelations not shared in the truncated events presented in a textbook, the effects of those events on people. Following Emily Bryce’s story makes the sorrow relatable. She is a brilliantly created character, as are those who play supporting roles. Rhys Bowen has always given us exceptionally special characters, ones we become invested in. The Victory Garden is my favorite stand-alone by this author thus far, and I so hope she continues to write tales about the people who lived through the war to end all wars and the one that followed that.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of The Victory Garden, and I’ve given it an honest review.