Sarah Franklin, who grew up in the Gloucestershire countryside and has had a lifelong fascination with the beautiful Forest of Dean, heard about the Second World War prisoner of war camps there from her grandmother who took in sewing for the inmates.
But it was an aborted 2012 plan to sell off a chunk of the publicly-owned forest’s woodlands that set in motion her moving, tender but powerful debut novel which explores two very different and damaged young people finding solace in the forest’s healing rhythms of work and nature.
In this enchanting, thought-provoking story we meet Seppe, a gentle Italian PoW haunted by memories of war and a brutal father, and chippy city girl Connie Granger escaping from secrets in bombed-out Coventry to find a safe harbour, and maybe even a new life, as a lumberjill with the Women’s Timber Corps.
When they are thrown together amidst the calming beauty of the ancient forest, the two outsiders, Connie and Seppe, discover a liberating sense of identity in both their work and each other, but the fiercely independent Connie must decide if the price of freedom will be too great.
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In the early spring 1944, Connie escapes her home in Coventry after the Blitz devastates the city. She must learn to survive on her own now but this endless war isn’t all bad because it gives her ‘the chance to shift around a bit.’ And that’s useful when you have a secret to hide.
Unsure of what will be expected of her, Connie finds a job with the Women’s Timber Corps in the Forest of Dean as a lumberjill and soon finds far more joy and satisfaction in felling trees, cross-cutting, bark stripping and shredding than her factory work which was merely ‘a way to get a wage packet.’
For her, this remote community is a refuge and an escape, a place where she can protect the secret she has brought with her from Coventry.
Meanwhile, Seppe feels ‘dishonourable relief’ that for him the fighting is over. A ‘bad patriot,’ he only pretended to support the fascist forces of Mussolini because he was beaten into submission by his father but he is anxious now about what lies ahead for him in England.
Connie and Seppe’s meeting signals new beginnings. They find in each other the means to imagine their own lives anew and to face the things which each fears the most. But as they are drawn together, the world outside the forest haven is being torn apart. Old certainties are crumbling and then Connie’s secret is revealed and both must now make a life-defining choice…
Franklin, a judge for the Costa Short Story Award whose creative non-fiction has been published in anthologies in the USA, has found fertile new ground in this warm, original and compelling literary fiction debut which is filled with vivid period detail, atmospheric charm and a richly imagined cast of characters.
Star players are Connie and Seppe, the two young victims of wartime, displaced by conflict but discovering that nature – ‘the scent of bud and blossom in every breath’ – holds the power to heal wounds, give meaning and purpose to fractured lives, and bring the inner peace that had once seemed so elusive.
The forest – initially an alien and unfamiliar place in which to hide painful secrets – becomes a character in its own right, an eternal symbol of freedom, of belonging, of renewal and, most importantly, of hope for the future.
Connie and Seppe’s intense and bittersweet journey is also a touching and overdue tribute to the Women’s Timber Corps and the groundbreaking lumberjills whose hard work and skills earned a grudging acceptance from farmers and foresters that they were just as good as the men they had replaced.
Immaculately researched and cleverly crafted, this is a story to delight, inform and impress in equal measure.
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)