Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are trying to stay cheerful despite the Luftwaffe making life thoroughly annoying for everyone. Emmeline dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance – but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt of ‘Woman’s Friend’ magazine.
Mrs Bird is very clear: letters containing any form of Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she decides the only thing for it is to secretly write back…
I absolutely adored Dear Mrs Bird.
In the beginning, the style caught me off guard. I was expecting a 1940s period piece with the all the familiar hallmarks of language and tone one might expect from a book set during the Second World War. Generally, when authors choose to write about the past, they also choose to use the literary conventions and style of that period. This has a much more modern flavour. And that isn’t a bad thing, it just takes a bit of mental adjustment.
I initially found the character of Emmeline rather overenthusiastic and naïve, but by the end was enamoured with her bravery and humanity. She had what they would have called “pluck”. There was something utterly real about these people, and rather lovable. In their own, ordinary ways, they were inspiring. I rooted for them, cried with them, and desperately wanted them to have a happy ending. I found their story deeply touching.
If there was one criticism I could make, it would be in the characterisation of the male characters. The women had deeply felt and demonstrated emotions, both flaws and heroic qualities. They had the same small, petty concerns we all do, as well as larger worries which reflected the troubled times they lived in and brought the War home on a very personal level. The male characters were much more two-dimensional, and, as a result, I found them harder to relate to. I can’t say it spoiled my enjoyment of the book as a whole. In some ways, I found it refreshing. This is a book about war on the Home Front, and so much of those experiences of the time were women’s experiences; and so many of them remain unexplored in our literary culture.
With that in mind, this is probably not a book written for a male audience. I don’t rule it out, but “traditionally feminine” themes and a predominantly female cast don’t naturally lead one to think so. If you’re into all things dark and gritty, thrillers and the like, this is not the book for you. Otherwise, I’m struggling to think of a demographic that wouldn’t enjoy it. It was just too wonderful not to like!
Dear Mrs Bird is interesting from a larger, historical perspective. The work of fire fighters during the Blitz in London, for example, was something I hadn’t considered before. There was a good balance between texture and pace, which was perfectly held, and kept you captive all the way to the end. However, I think it was the details which charmed me. Without long passages of descriptive text, or enumerating every sensation felt by the characters, A J Pearce somehow conveyed a very real sense of place and time. It was beautifully, cleverly written. Funny, in parts, and desperately sad and poignant in others. I found it impossible to put down.
This is one I will no doubt return to read again.