Book Review

From time to time I make a commitment to a publisher to review a book but find it is not the best fit for my blog. When that happens, I will fulfill my commitment by posting the review here and linking to it in my social media. 

Review does not always constitute endorsement. The publisher provided me with a galley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My goal is to share my thoughts in a true, kind, and helpful way. I hope to provide enough information for you to know whether this is the right book at the right time for you and to enrich your life in some way through the review itself, even for those who do not go on to read the book. Thank you for your time here. 

The Little Wartime Library {A Book Review}

22 February 2023


The Little Wartime Library, Kate Thompson’s new novel of World War II, brings to life the fictional community that grew up around a very real underground library in London’s East End from the Blitz to the end of the war. Fans of Call the Midwife can readily picture this part of London and the working poor living there a decade later. The socioeconomic situation seems much the same during the wartime years presented here. Thompson’s novel depicts the unique extended family which shared reading melded together in those dark years of fear and bombing; the healing power of love and books and the pain of grief complicated by guilt and shame also thread throughout the novel.


The Bethnal Green Public Library, community and educational center for the borough, was bombed on the very first night of the Blitz. Its roof and most of the books were destroyed. Underground in Bethnal Green, the unfinished Tube station became the ad hoc air raid shelter for thousands of people without other options. Miles of triple-bunked beds lined the platforms. Services including a café, a medical office, a theatre, and a hairdresser’s provided for the community’s practical needs, since many of the Bethnal Green residents lived in the Tube shelter from dusk to daylight for 5 or 6 years. The real-life librarians of Bethnal Green decided the shelter needed a library too. What better way, they thought, to escape from the terror and find a way to grow through the war than to read? This was a free public lending library, with a variety of books on loan with a shelter ticket the only prerequisite.


This novel invents a widowed children’s librarian, Clara Button, to run that real underground library. As a children’s librarian, she naturally reaches out to the “Tube Rats,” as the children of the shelter are known, and starts regular times of reading aloud. Her interactions with these children, especially Sparrow and Beatty, were some of my favorite parts of the book.


Clara’s assistant and best friend, Ruby, is broken from a different kind of bereavement, based on another true story from the Bethnal Green Tube station during World War II. While Clara turns her grief into nurture and outreach to the children, Ruby turns her grief into self-destructive habits of drink and promiscuity.


In addition to the children’s story hours, Clara and Ruby launch a book club for the factory women. Their tastes run to more salacious fare than I am comfortable with, and much is made of an American romance novel which was risqué enough to provoke the censors on both sides of the Atlantic.


To be honest, Clara isn’t sure whether she likes that novel either, but her aim is to serve the shelter residents with literary escape from the very difficult circumstances of their daily life, as well as to inform and educate. This is a democratic view of library holdings, and the book pushes back against the idea of censorship and book bans.


Additional tragedy strikes Clara and the community in the second half of the book, and the suspense and resolution moved me to tears. I liked so many of the characters in this book, and Clara seems to be a lovely person with whom to share a cuppa and talk books. She and Billy the ambulance man are a pair I can’t help but root for, and their hearts to serve others are as big as this underground library is small.


Readers of my blog know how much I love books and reading, and their superpower to transport to other times and places and even eyes and feet is one of God’s gifts. Reading for escape truly is a useful coping mechanism in hard times and keeps us sane in the better times too. It enlarges our horizons and grows our empathy. Sometimes, it sneaks past our defenses and takes us by the hand to grieve our ungrieved grief and cry stored-up tears as we walk with the characters through their trials. This book did do that for me.


What I value in reading even more than escape, though, is hope. Real, sure, lasting hope because of a Rescuer far more powerful and committed than Billy the war medic. Hope that illuminates even the most desperate circumstances. Hope that is imperishable and unfading and sustains us through life and death. This hope is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose resurrection bought our pardon and whose presence has sustained me through many dangers, toils, and snares. I wished, in reading this novel, for the presence of the church in the underground shelter. Perhaps it was absent in real life, but I longed for that anchor in the world of the novel. Jewish cultural and ethnic community was represented, but vital, dynamic faith was not. I missed the anchoring presence which Nonnatus House provides to Call the Midwife. For me, despite my fondness for libraries and books, The Little Wartime Library was not as sure and steady an anchor as the Anglican nuns and their faith.


While I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Bethnal Green Tube shelter life in the novel itself, I enjoyed the historical material at the back of the book even more. The photos were a priceless addition. Kate Thompson’s research was clearly thorough and a labor of love.


That said, I feel compelled to offer some content warnings. If this book were a movie, it would probably be PG-13 or TV-14 for language, alcohol use, sexuality, wartime violence (bombings), and some intense depictions of domestic violence. Suicide, PTSD, panic attacks, and depression also appear.


As such I cannot give an unqualified recommendation to my blog readers of this book. I do recommend an Internet search into Bethnal Green Tube shelter life, and if you decide to read this novel you might start by thumbing through the photos in the historical section. For my fellow fans of World War II fiction, I can heartily endorse Madeline Miller’s The Last Bookshop in London and Kristy Cambron’s The Paris Dressmaker. My tastes run more G-PG in content, so those gave me purer enjoyment with fewer mixed feelings. Not everyone shares my preferences there, but I hope in reading my thoughts you have a clearer idea whether this book will suit your taste and sensitivities of conscience.Thank you  for your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.