Book review: The Poppy Girls by Margaret Dickinson

The Poppy Girls by Margaret Dickinson
The Poppy Girls by Margaret Dickinson
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The traditional lifestyles of two Lincolnshire families are swept away when war is declared in 1914.

Young men will be forced to put their careers and ambitions on hold, women will witness the end of long-held traditions, and for others, both at home and abroad, the shadow of death will become a constant companion.

Can relationships forged in the balmy summer days of 1914 survive the rigours of four long years of brutal conflict?

The Poppy Girls is the first beautiful and compelling book in The Maitland Trilogy, an exciting new series from much-loved author Margaret Dickinson, a writer who had her first novel published at the age of 25 and has since gone on to pen a raft of bestselling sagas.

Dickinson’s inspiration is the Lincolnshire coast and landscape where she grew up and this moving new saga of love, conflict, family, friendship and womanhood explores the social changes wrought on different classes of society by the First World War.

Headstrong Pips Maitland of Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire has always been a rebel. Both her father Edwin and her brother Robert are doctors and, for as long as she can remember, 19-year-old Pips has dreamed of taking up a career in medicine.

But convention – aided and abetted by her mother – dictates that Pips must instead settle down with a suitable husband and raise a brood of children.

With her ambitions thwarted, Pips is determined to defy her mother’s scheme to find her a husband. However, in July of 1914 Robert brings home the handsome, charming and lively Giles Kendall, a friend from medical school who is training as a surgeon at Lincoln Hospital.

Suddenly it seems that Pips might fall in love with an acceptable suitor after all, but the drums of war are beating and the future is uncertain for everyone.

Hearing that her father’s friend, Dr John Hazelwood, is forming a flying ambulance corps to work near the front lines of the battlefields, Pips quickly volunteers as one of its nurses and asks Alice Dawson, her loyal lady’s maid, to go with her.

Robert and Giles offer their services as doctors, and Alice’s brother William, a shy and sensitive young man with pacifist beliefs, joins them as a stretcher bearer but nothing could have prepared them for the horrific sights they will encounter.

And when the ambulance unit moves close to the fighting to offer first aid as fast as possible, it puts them all in constant danger. Can the love between Pips and Giles survive and blossom like the poppies of Flanders fields?

Dickinson, who made two research trips to the Belgian town of Ypres, knows how to tug at our heartstrings and this wartime tale of hurt, hope and heroism is packed with drama, emotion and the complex web of home, hearth and domestic service that binds together two families from opposite sides of the tracks.

War, we discover, is a leveller in which society’s class barriers are breached, women are propelled into new pioneering roles, and men from all walks of life live, suffer and die together amidst the horror of the trenches on the Western Front.

There is death and despair here but there is also the power of love and friendship… an impressive start to what promises to be a captivating trilogy.

(Pan, paperback, £6.99)