Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending us a copy of Home Fires by Julie Summers. This historical book was found to be so inspirational that it was turned into a PBS Series under their Masterpiece umbrella. Loving PBS’ Masterpiece and stories about strong and driven women, I did not hesitate when this title was offered for review. Unfortunately, while this book effectively chronicles the work of Britain’s “ordinary” women who were a crucial component of their country’s war effort, it turned out to be a surprisingly dry read.
Is Home Fires meticulously researched? There’s no question. It brims with historical detail about the Women’s Institute in Great Britain during the upheaval of WWII. The women of this organization did everything from knitting garments for troops to helping with food production. They organized evacuees, collected herbs for medicinal purposes and constructed potato baskets for the Ministry of Agriculture. The author clearly poured over history to be able to share these stories. In no way do I dispute her hard work, or her attention to detail. From a historical standpoint, this is a worthy addition to any library.
Alas, for me, Home Fires read like a history textbook. While I was open to being swept away by the collective effort of the Women’s Institute, I found myself skipping forward in search of dialogue. I pined for a personal narrative, and was more than surprised when the book was more of a synopsis of this time in history, rather than a story about it. While these women were extraordinary, it was very difficult to link to any of them.
For those women who agreed to make the camouflage nets by hand the WI was able to obtain the twine and patterns. This was paid work whereas the garnishing, which went on in the WIs around the country, was not. Arnside WI in Cumbria were busy garnishing camouflage nets for several months. They had hooks screwed into the beams of their meeting hut and the nets had the added benefit of dividing the space in two so they could proceed with their work or hold their meetings while the other side of the hut was used for ARP and other purposes, including weighing babies. (Home Fires, p. 218)
You can see that there is no shortage of detail. At no point does this book lack effort. Truly, if you are looking for a (well deserved) summary of the women’s effort that was taking place beyond Britain’s front lines, Home Fires is a triumph. If, however, you are more interested in a novel about the Women’s Institute (which is what I thought I was opening), then these pages might come as a surprise.
There’s nothing I like less than giving an uninspired review of someone’s hard work. If my review focused solely on research and effort, then Home Fires would be given 5 stars without hesitation. I’m afraid, however, that this book had me anxious for the last page. Not because I anticipated a memorable ending, but because I longed for my next read. While I respect this book and the extraordinary women behind this WWII organization, I think I might prefer the PBS series over the written version this time.
2.5 stars for Home Fires.