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A Christmas Miracle For The Railway Girls
by Maisie Thomas
Review

A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE FOR THE RAILWAY GIRLS (The Railway Girls #6)

Manchester 1942 – There are surprises in store for the railway girls this festive season…

When Cordelia’s daughter Emily falls for a young chap who doesn’t meet the approval of her father, Cordelia is reminded of her own first love – a love that she has never forgotten.

Mabel is determined to get to the bottom of a spate of local burglaries. Her heart is in the right place as she sets out on a quest to clear her friend’s name, but there will be unforeseen consequences.

It’s nothing short of a miracle when Colette returns to Manchester. But it’s not going to be easy for her to keep living the life she once knew, and an impossible situation lies ahead.

There will be more than one storm for the railway girls to weather but with the friendship and support of one another, there’s hope that all will be well by Christmas…

MAISIE THOMAS

Image of author Susanna Bavin / Maisie Thomas / Polly HeronMaisie Thomas was born and brought up in Manchester, which provides the location for her Railway Girls novels.

She loves writing stories with strong female characters, set in times when women needed determination and vision to make their mark.

The Railway Girls series is inspired by her great aunt Jessie, who worked as a railway clerk during the First World War.

Maisie lives on the beautiful North Wales coast with her railway enthusiast husband and their two rescue cats.

They have enjoyed many holidays chugging up and down the UK’s heritage steam railways and their favourite is the Severn Valley Railway.

Maisie also writes as Polly Heron and under her real name of Susanna Bavin

“My hope for the characters in this series is that they will forge friendships that will last a lifetime, because I know from personal experience that strong friendships between women can provide support and comfort, not to mention loads of fun. I hope that you, my readers, have just such special friendships in your lives too”

FIRST LINES

JUNE 1942

“With their tools over their shoulders, Mabel and the other members of her gang of lengthmen walked from the station to their allocated length of the line. Finding their starting place, they dumped their knapsacks and got going. Bernice wasn’t the sort to allow slacking. The first job was to hoe out the weeds from the railway tracks, then they set to in pairs, getting on with the real task of a lengthman, which was to level the railway bed on which the permanent way was laid. While one of each pair used a crowbar or a pickaxe to raise a sleeper, the other had to shovel the ballast back underneath. In due course, the same length of track would need exactly the same work to be done again because the ballast shifted every time a train travelled along the line”

MEMORABLE LINES

“Oh, the temptation to snuggle against him! Plenty of other couples these days showed their feelings in public in a way that would have been unthinkable before the war, but Mabel, although she was happy to show affection, had never quite shaken off the influence of Mumsy and her etiquette book, much as she had been tempted. Nobody was better acquainted with the rules of social behaviour than Esme Bradshaw. It came from being new money and the determination not to make any blunders”

.

“Mabel knew only too well from her own grief and guilt after her best friend Althea had died how inner unhappiness and turmoil could adversely affect outward appearance”

.

“Tears sprang into Colette’s eyes. Lord, she wasn’t feeling sorry for him, was she? After the way he had controlled her every response throughout their marriage? His words, his feelings, the look in his eyes all appeared genuine, but that was how he did it, wasn’t it? That was the way manipulation worked”

.

“Cordelia joined Emily with the Hancocks. Kenneth would expect her to stand guard, but she also wanted to be polite. If she hung back, it might look stand-offish. Worse, she might appear superior. If there was one thing the war had taught her, it was that people she had previously regarded as her social inferiors were every bit as good as she was”

.

“That’s all right, Sister,” said the doctor. “Circumstances and all that. Mrs Naylor, I am aware of how you came by your injuries. Rest assured; I’ve already had words with Mr Naylor. We can’t have behaviour of this sort. One expects a certain amount of it from the lower orders, but it’s not acceptable in your husband’s rank in life. Carrying on like the great unwashed won’t be tolerated, and I jolly well told him so. Colette stared from her good eye in disbelief. Carrying on like the great unwashed – was that how wife-battering was viewed?”

.

“She has certain friends whom she met through her former work with the railways. Two of them removed Mrs Naylor from the ward. No attempt was made to have her properly discharged. It was a ridiculous act perpetrated by a pair of foolish girls with no knowledge or understanding of the married state. Could it be that her so-called friends prevailed upon Mrs Naylor to press charges against her husband?”

.

“Just because I have my fears about my boys doesn’t mean I haven’t got time to share your worries about Emily. That’s what friends do for one another.” Dot laughed. ” If everyone kept their worries to themselves, the world would be a much quieter place, but I don’t think it’d be any better for it”

REVIEW

“It’s going to be a festive season full of surprises…”

Grab yourself a seat by the fire, curl up with a warm snuggly blanket and a delicious mug of hot chocolate (don’t forget the marshmallows, will you? Whipped cream is an optional extra!) and prepare to immerse yourself in the next instalment of this wonderful WWII saga. You don’t need to have followed the series right from the beginning, as author Maisie Thomas skilfully weaves the relevant backstory details into a seamless narrative, without too much repetition surrounding past events and relationships for us seasoned readers, making each book perfect as a standalone story. However, with the pages seeming to simply turn themselves, I just know that you’ll wish you had made the acquaintance of Dot, Cordelia and the girls, and followed their wartime journey of friendship and camaraderie, right from its very beginning.

So, let’s catch up with the gang and see what life has in store for them as war intensifies and yet another Christmas is spent separated from friends and family…

For more than one of the characters, this Christmas is going to be completely different from the preceding one. Joan has left work following her marriage and the recent arrivals of both baby Max and his four-legged canine friend. She doesn’t get to spend as much time with the girls as she would like, however when the chips are down and they all need to pull together, her husband Bob is never going to deny her freedom to help out, whilst he enjoys some father son bonding time. He really does buck the trend of a 1940s husband and is quite the modern man in his attitudes towards his wife and family. And let’s face it, baby Max has more aunties looking out for him and spoiling him, than he knows what to do with!

Railway Girl Mabel, is, along with three other ladies, part of the lengthman team, often being paired up to work with Louise, whose family have something of a bad reputation and chequered past. Her older brother had been involved in the theft on a grand scale of war rations, which had been hidden along the railway in case of an invasion. He is, along with his father, also a violent man towards the women in their household, so when a battered and bruised Lou is forced to own up to Mabel the full extent of his abuse and criminality, Mabel marshals her fellow Railway Girls and they run him out of town. A once relieved and happy Lou is now hurting all over again and Mabel makes it her business to find out who is responsible this time, particularly when a dear devoted friend and adopted member of the group is implicated in a crime everyone knows she would never dream of committing and which looks set to destroy her reputation.

Cordelia, Kenneth and their daughter Emily, are the epitome of middle class living, with wartime shortages not having as much impact on their standard of living, as they are for so many others. Cordelia had to fight tooth and nail to join the women working on the railways, fulfilling the roles the men left behind when they answered the call to arms. She also had to prove herself to the ladies of the group before they could completely trust her and open up without shame or fear in front of her. For Cordelia, the experience has taught her some valuable life lessons, which she cherishes and will carry with her long after the war is over. However, for Kenneth and Emily, the experience has been altogether more traumatic and alien to them. It took a near fatal disaster for father and daughter to witness the true meaning of selfless friendship, but now, along with Cordelia, they are proud to be able to call people from all walks of life ‘friend’, without prejudice. However, Cordelia does have a secret of her own, which has plagued and tarnished her sixteen years of marriage and which she now needs to address before it is too late to set the record straight. Unbeknownst to Cordelia though, a proud Kenneth is only too aware of the emotional turmoil his wife has kept locked inside her for so long, so when she makes a decision which will change the rest of their lives, he is full of trepidation, not knowing which way their paths will take going forward.

The period leading up to Christmas brings an amazing surprise to the group, when one of their number, Colette, whom they believed had been blown up and killed in an enemy bombing raid on the rail works, suddenly turns up on the arm of her grieving husband, purportedly having wandered off and suffered a mental breakdown after the blast. This is the only time that the group has not been party to a secret mission by one of their number, partly because they would probably never have believed what had really been going on behind closed doors in Colette and Tony’s home, and also because of the personal danger Colette’s benefactor is placing herself in, with both Tony and the law. When the situation dramatically explodes out of control and still the authorities are willing to turn a blind eye to what is going on, the ladies are united in their mission to protect one of their own, no matter what the personal cost to themselves or their reputations.

Once again, I have to say that this series just keeps on giving more and getting better all the time, with Maisie Thomas, always managing to put a slightly different spin on the storyline, which keeps each new episode unique, fresh, vibrant and relevant to the cultural and societal mores of the times.

This is the second Christmas I will have spent with the girls, although I think the book would be fine to read at any time of the year, as the seasonal references, whilst definitely present, don’t overwhelm the narrative or dialogue, which also spans the preceding months from June and, it would be a shame to miss out on this episode for fear that Christmas is its only focus point. As the bombing raids intensify and a ravaged city faces shortages and tragedy, friendships amongst colleagues becomes an even more vital bond, on a railway network which is a sitting target for the enemy.

That Maisie has a personal passion for all things railway related, especially when that is combined with her affinity to her home city of Manchester, is evident in the well-structured, multi-layered storyline, which seamlessly blends fact with fiction, to give a wonderfully textured, rich in atmosphere, immersive work, with true visual depth and range. From the outset, she knows exactly where she is heading with each new storyline, so that it fits in beautifully both with its preceding episode and with the next instalment which is probably already on the drawing board.

For those readers who relish the ‘armchair traveller’ status which comes along with a good premise and interesting characters, this storyline might not seem quite enough to satisfy at first glance, as its physical footprint is not vast. However, Maisie always makes the most of an opportunity to use enough wonderfully descriptive narrative and dialogue, to make me feel as though I am walking the streets with the characters, working alongside them in the amazing Victoria Station, or visiting them in their homes as they make the most of getting by on wartime rations, seeing what they are seeing and feeling what is happening to them.

Whilst occasionally new characters make a guest appearance in a book, the original core group of Railway Girls, are a constant presence in and around the concourse and station buffet of Manchester’s Victoria Station. Maisie seeks to feature two or three of them in their own mini storyline with each new episode, although always with the support and backup of their friends, when it is needed. This book concentrated mostly on Cordelia and Colette’s stories, although because of the complexities of their individual challenges, and with other members of the group having to cope with their own mini crises at the same time, just about all of the ladies and their extended network of friends, ended up by pitching in at one time or another, making this a Christmas they would remember for all the right reasons.

This series highlights the slowly creeping change in attitudes brought about by the necessities of war and in each new adventure, Maisie manages to sympathetically focus the spotlight on one or two of the societal mores and norms of the times, although subtly and not in so much detail as to distract from the main premise, but nonetheless helping to make the individual storylines and the series as a whole, detailed pieces of social commentary. On this occasion, domestic violence and coercive control feature quite strongly, in their many different, yet equally troubling guises. From the overt violence inflicted on Louise and her mother, by husbands and brothers who see it as their right to keep their women subservient and obedient with their fists; to the much more subtle manipulation techniques which we now label as gaslighting, which Colette is subject to at the hands of her seemingly doting husband, where unseen and often unnoticed mental abuse and control is in fact, the overriding factor in their relationship. One form of cruelty can be as damaging and dangerous as the other and equally difficult for the victim to remove themselves from a situation, at a time when the men of a household have all the rights and the law on their side, and the victim is often portrayed as the wrongdoer for not being a good and obedient enough partner.

Maisie has developed a compelling cast of characters, who have been afforded the strongest of voices with which to tell their story. Given the circumstances of the troubling times they share, it is inevitable that some relationships will change and evolve over time, either as a consequence of the ravages of the war itself, or through changes in personal circumstances. Either way, Maisie is really adept at treating departing characters with the respect they are due and welcoming newcomers into the fold, ready to add their own unique blend of strengths and bonds to the mix and keeping the spirit of the Railway Girls alive. The camaraderie, dynamics and synergy between the characters is very evocative and tangible, making them easy to relate to and invest in. Yes, they are as complex and emotional, raw, vulnerable and passionate as the next person; however, there are definitely no ’empty’ emotions, as they are always vibrant, genuine and believable, addictive and authentic, often with a great sense of fun, despite the difficult and busy lives they lead and the personal challenges and tragedies they must endure.

I read for enjoyment, entertainment and escapism, although ideally, I also like my storylines to be engaging, emotional and educational. So, when each new book in a series can evoke all those feelings, time and time again without losing its edge, whilst still taking me on unique and individual journey, which fires my imagination and stimulates my senses, then I know I am on to a winner!

I’m a very ‘happy bunny’ now that I have had another visit with, the Railway Girls, and I can see for myself that slowly but surely things are working out for them all so far. However, knowing that the war is still only halfway through, I am now dreading the thought that life may yet still throw them a few nasty surprises, so please be kind to them Maisie!

Image of author Susanna Bavin / Maisie Thomas / Polly Heron

A complimentary paperback edition of this book, for review purposes, was made available by the author, for which I thank her.

Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion, and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.

I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However, some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars!

Thank you for taking the time to read my review, I appreciate your support

 

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