As the 100th anniversary of the First World War approaches there are a significant number of books about the war being published. Over the last 6 months I’ve seen at least a dozen, perhaps more, and there will be more to come, no doubt.
Many of them are stories of the Diggers, the Tommies and the fighting, but, significantly, there are a fair few being published that deal with the changing role of women and girls during this period. Poppy is the story of a young girl, serving the de Vere family as a parlourmaid. The action opens on the Mayfield Comforts group, “…knitting balaclavas, gloves, socks and mufflers as fast as they could for the boys on the front.” Poppy and Molly are winding wool into balls from skeins as they can only manage straight knitting – and they are feeling very, very uncomfortable.
In the first few paragraphs, Hooper conveys many of the complications that the war was to bring to the old ways: a change in the class structure and the role of women, and how ‘needs must’ despite how it had been in the ‘old days’. Poppy and Molly are relieved to be sent out of the room “with a nod” to go and put on their lacy “afternoon aprons” and collect the afternoon tea for the ladies in the knitting circle. “Once restored to their usual stations in life, the two girls served the ladies silently and deferentially and everyone was much more at ease.”
Poppy Pearson is the major breadwinner in her family, earning much more than her mother does making cardboard boxes. Father is long gone, and her brother, Billy, feels that going into service would be “licking the boots of the lords and ladies”. In truth, he is lazy and arrogant, and Poppy wonders if the war might make Billy step up to his responsibilities. She has been in service since the age of fourteen, despite winning a scholarship to the local college. The trouble with having no father, though, is that there is no money for uniforms or books, especially with two young sisters to feed, and Poppy is forced to take a job with the local gentry at Airey House.
Into the mix is thrown the son of Lord and Lady de Vere, Freddie. Master Freddie has floppy hair and a winning smile and seems to be paying more attention to Poppy than is usual for someone of his class. Although Poppy knows that nothing can come of it, and in fact she suspects him of just playing a game, there is little in her life to distract her from daydreaming about him.
Over the next few weeks it seems that everyone is that Poppy knows is joining up. Poppy is torn between supporting her family and supporting the war effort. Thankfully, Poppy’s old English teacher, Miss Luttrell, approaches Poppy with an exciting proposal – to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse. To Poppy it sounds like the a wonderful way to serve her country, but of course, Poppy knows that as volunteer she won’t be able to send home half her wages to her mother. Luckily for Poppy, Miss Luttrell has a plan – to pay Poppy for a small legacy left by a relative. And so Poppy’s new life begins.
Hooper interweaves the many elements of this story skillfully and authentically. Initially, the blossoming romance between Poppy and Freddie left me cold – I could just see Poppy having her heart broken by Freddie – but the story takes quite a different tack, which was something I really enjoyed. Far from being predictable and cloying, the story is energetic and interesting and has real insights into the job that Poppy is doing, as well as revealing aspects of contemporary society that are often not covered by historical novels of this type. Conscientious objectors, medical procedures, love, social standing, family, and politics are some of the issues of the time that are successfully tackled.
The writing is crisp, the main character is engaging – not too knowing but not too much of a doormat at the same time – and Poppy’s growth and change are realistic and moving. The first in a series, the sequel is Poppy in the Field, to be published in 2015, I wished that I had the next one the moment I finished this one. I got really involved in the stories, of Poppy, of Billy, of Freddie, and the wonderful VAD girls that live and work in the hospitals. Aimed at in lower to middle secondary, Poppy is a recommended read for anyone wishing to learn more about the role of women and girls during the Great War, whilst exploring a little recognised group of amazing people.