Two and a half years into World War II, Cynthia Maitland, principal of Ashworth
Grammar School for girls near Manchester, announces that the school is going to
sign up for the Merchant Navy's ship adoption scheme.
This will involve the exchange of letters between pupils and crew members, and the
sending of parcels to cheer the ship's crew. It's 1942 and the war is not going well
for the Allies. Singapore has just fallen to the Japanese, and convoys crossing the
Atlantic Ocean carrying steel, timber and food supplies are being hit by torpedoes.
Manchester and Liverpool have been targeted in air raids, and the flickering of
burning docks in Manchester has been visible for miles.
Cynthia believes that the ship adoption scheme will broaden the outlook of her
pupils, as well as boosting the morale of the sailors.
To this end, she also starts a tea club for sixth-formers, where they gather to
debate current affairs with guest speakers. The rugged Scottish captain of the
adopted ship, Josh Percival, visits the school with some of his men - and romance
is not long in blossoming.
Two of the crew, Tim and Robert, start a correspondence with Jen and Polly,
16 year-old friends, who reunite with the sailors at town hall dances when they're on
The captain and the school principal also exchange letters, and mutual respect
quickly matures into love and passion.
It's no surprise that Joan Bakewell so evocatively captures the war years in this,
her first novel. The 75-year old British writer and broadcaster explains in the
introduction that, although the book's characters are creatures of her imagination,
she was a pupil at a school in the 1940s when it joined the ship adoption scheme.
The burning issues of the day are argued over by Tim and his socialist father, while
the news in the Manchester Guardian is of loss and struggle.
However, there are moments of respite; the soldiers and sailors briefly forget the
war in the jubilation of jiving in the dance hall.
News of enemy attacks and rough seas are juxtaposed against comparative trivia,
such as the Archbishop of Canterbury permitting women to go to church without
hats, and the government banning embroidery on underwear.
The narrative shifts between the war years and 2003, when a grandmother, Millie,
receives a box of memorabilia that her deceased mother left in storage.
As she explores the contents - a photograph album, old school magazines from the
1940s, the model of a ship - she wonders why her mother never showed her these
things while she was alive. Her curiosity piqued, Millie sets off to Ashworth
Grammar School on a journey of discovery.
As the links between past and present emerge, the fates of "all the nice
their wartime heroes unfold, some ending happily, others in pain and grief.
Bakewell's story movingly evokes the wartime era and charts the enduring tragedy
of war, where loss lingers not only on the battlefield, but in the lives unlived back