This beautiful story has just made it under the wire as I was compiling my Top 21 Books for 2021 and it truly deserves it’s place next to the others on the list. I was gripped by the story of Jack, who makes a very different promise to his new bride Gwen on the eve of WW2. Most soldiers are promising to see them again, to return, but Jack is quite clear. If he should survive the war, he won’t be back this way again. Gwen prays he keeps to his promise, but as they celebrate VE Day she does keep looking over her shoulder. What if he reneges on his promise? War has changed Jack and he is no longer the man who made that bargain. He wants to return and claim Gwen as his bride again, but little does he know that this could set in motion a chain of events that will leave he and Gwen fighting for what they love most.
We go back and forth in time throughout the book, but begins with Jack fleeing his home city on the night train, shielded by a friend who’s working on this nightly service down south from Newcastle. Jack is like many other young men in Newcastle, he’s a riveter in the shipyards and lives in a terrace house with his Mum and sister Jenny. One moment life is trundling along as normal, then the next a terrible twist of fate leads to a violent act of revenge. Stowing away on the night train, Jack plans to hop off somewhere far away where he can find work. So, as if from nowhere, he appears round the bend of a country lane to find a young woman who has fallen from her horse, but has her foot trapped in the stirrup. He hurries to help Gwen as her skittish horse takes off in the direction of the village. He takes her home to her family farm, where she helps her Dad with the dairy cattle and any other jobs that need doing. Lucky for Jack he’s arrived at a busy time on the farm, so while he stays for a home cooked meal to thank him for his service, Gwen’s dad Jim asked if he would like to stay and work. Jack accepts and as Gwen shows him his bed in the tack room, he thinks he may have fallen on his feet for the summer. What he doesn’t know is that Gwen is about to put him in a very difficult position. As he investigates a noise in the stack yard at night, he finds Gwen trying (and failing miserably) to quietly retrieve a ladder. She can’t pass her father’s door because the floor boards squeak. Reluctantly, he helps her climb up into her room, knowing that she must be meeting someone secretly and is surprised by how that bothers him.
I grew to like Jack, who is a young man of principles, only resorting to violence when someone he loves is hurt. He has an inbuilt moral compass, especially in his dealings with women and is very critical of anyone who doesn’t meet those standards of behaviour. He knows that in circumstances where young men lead women on and make false promises, it is the woman’s life and reputation that is ruined while the man just carries onto the next victim. He is a gentleman in his behaviour, even if he isn’t in position. I loved how he doesn’t have that family structure at home, but finds it with Jim and Gwen, and even housekeeper eventually. I didn’t always understand Gwen, although she is very young at the start of the novel and thanks to Jim’s overprotective nature, she’s quite naive. Something I did understand was her loyalty to the land and farm, it’s a way of life that’s in her blood and she isn’t afraid of hard work. She takes a very active part in the farm, from early morning milking, to driving tractors and locking the livestock up late at night. I thought the differences between gender and class were very pronounced in the novel. The women were far from passive in this rural community, with Gwen and Norah as great examples. It was interesting to see how the women from the hall were very separate from this industriousness – something that works against Gwen when it comes to being a mother.
The author creates a beautiful link between Gwen’s wholesomeness and the countryside – she’s miles away from the girls Jack has encountered in the city. She’s a young girl between places in society, she’s not in the lower classes but she’s not good enough for the landed gentry to consort with. At least not in public anyway. In the wartime sections of the book she’s well contrasted with land girl Norah, who has a cynical and knowing way about her. If they go the pub or an event, she soon disappears into a crowd of enthusiastic young men and seems completely at home flirting and telling stories that make them roar with laughter. Gwen is quieter, worried about how the farm will keep going with just her and Norah, wanting desperately to hold on to her father’s legacy. Besides, she knows the lies young men tell and the damage they can do. In those wartime sections, I felt the land and the countryside around it contrasted with the imagined battlefield far from here and the changes that farming had to come. Land was commandeered by the Ministry of Agriculture and fallow fields ploughed up for crops to feed the country. It was the beginning of the end for that quiet time when two ponies pulled the plough and two workers would weed the crop using a hoe. These passages of man working quietly within the countryside soon gives way to more modern farming methods which feel at odds with nature, rather than being harmonious. The author’s descriptions of animal and bird life are like a hymn to the old ways. I understood Jack’s need to return to this life, to feel at peace within it and allow the noise of battle, lodged in his head, to die down. However, I couldn’t see how he could stay either. I wondered constantly when the past would catch up with him and whether Gwen’s secrets could possibly remain hidden. This was a different slant on WW2, full of beautiful pastoral scenes and a relationship I was wishing would turn to love. A simply gorgeous read.
Meet the Author
Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children.