Home Fires by Julie Summers is the book that inspired the television series by the same name. It was originally published in the UK under the title Jambusters. I, of course, watched this series. I was so engrossed in it that even though I knew there would only be a few episodes in the first season, when the last episode came I didn’t realize it would be the finale episode and I was pretty sad about that. The seasons for Masterpiece tend to always be short with a long wait in between. Soon after the finale, I learned that my local library had gotten in a copy of the book the television series was based on, and so, as a way to soften the blow of losing my favorite show for a while, I decided to check it out.
Home Fires is a non-fiction novel. It is a history of the Women’s Institute, focusing primarily on its role in England during World War II. The women’s institute was a civilian volunteer organization made up of English country women. It was started as a way to improve life in the country by educating women and empowering them to make improvements in the efficient running of a household, personal and home hygiene, the containment of illness, nutrition, raising children, and much more. It also became an important social outlet for women and a place where class barriers were more permeable. It grew into a way for the women of the households to express their voices in government matters that affected their roles. Then, ultimately, it grew into even more during the world wars. The government realized the scope of the organization and the reach they could have to make a contribution to the home front during the war. The WI undertook a staggering effort in building up food stores and clothing as well as placing refugees, fund raising for aid, and even buying ambulances. They were even called upon as a support to other women’s organizations such as the Women’s Land Army. All in all, a truly fascinating organization the likes of which you cannot realize from seeing the series on television.
I kind of expected this book to be a mix of chronological factual representation and narrative. Sort of like a memoir. This is a common misconception concerning this book from what I’ve read in other reviews. It is more like a mix of a heavily cited college paper in the form of a 300+ page book comprised of 10 chapters, each about 30 pages in length with a very long introduction. In terms of organization, it isn’t really chronological, nor is it grouped as best I can tell in terms of individual branches of the organization or of those involved. The best I can describe the organization, flow, and overall tone of this book is to say that it reads as conversational to me. It’s like a very intense history buff just went and dug deep into all information related to this topic, put it in a big beat up file folder, sat down at a table with you, emptied it out all over the table, and just started talking your ear off. That has been a turn off to a lot of people who read the book, but I have to say, I strongly identify with it. I’m this way about my family history.
Having said that, this is a very dense read with lots of names, dates, and places to follow. It takes a little longer than other books the same length to read and make heads or tails of. I hesitate to say so, because I don’t want to misrepresent how good the book is, but this book is not for just anyone who watched Home Fires and enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure you have to have some interest in either the era or in women’s history to be able to enjoy it thoroughly. It does get easier to read as you go along, with more personal stories woven in. It paints a picture of women’s lives in England as well as other countries during this era, life in the home, childhood in England during World War II, and a fascinatingly detailed picture of cooking during rationing. It even includes photographs. In this way, if you’re a big history buff with a lot of interest in the World War II era, I would honestly call this a must read. Even if you just think you may be, but haven’t gotten into it yet, this would be an excellent place to start. I honestly wish had read something like this sooner because it gives you such an understanding of other things you see, hear, or read about this era and even makes a bit more sense of some later eras. This book has also kindled a real interest for me in perhaps reading more similar nonfiction books in the future regarding everyday life in historical eras, and women’s organizations here in the United States.
Some quotes of interest from the book:
“In the first place, we are country women; we live on the land and serve the land. And in the last resort; it is not by armed force, or even by industrial prosperity, but it is by the land itself that men live.
In the second place, we are women, we belong to the constructive sex, whose whole life instinct is to reserve and foster life, to build homes in every land.”
“Say little, serve all, pass on. This is true greatness–to serve unnoticed and work unseen.”
“I see and believe that women can and will bring all classes, all denominations, all interests, all schools of the best thought together in that common brotherhood of love…which every man and every woman longs for in his or her innermost heart.”
“She had the leader’s ability to hit hard or tap gently until the nail was driven home.”
“As long as we are bound by fellowship, truth and justice we can afford to be intolerant of a lot of things.”
“The common lot of men binds us to each other and if we will, we may pluck virtue from tragedy.”
While, as I said previously, this book is not going to be for everyone, and you shouldn’t think that if you liked the series, you’ll like the book, I recommend this very highly to anyone with a great interest in history.