Cynthia Harrod-Eagles continues her slow march through World War I in this, the 30th book in the Morland Dynasty series. The book begins with what may be the most upsetting news a family back home could receive: the news that one of their men is missing. The previous book, The Burning Roses, hinted strongly at his fate, but it isn’t entirely clear. Will the Morlands ever learn what happened? So many families never did. They just had to assume, but the question is whether it’s better to assume life or to assume death. This has the potential for being a particularly dramatic storyline in the remaining few books, so I’m eager to see what happens.
This book offers a nice balance of battlefield action and home-front happenings. The beginning of the draft means that the few Morland men who haven’t enlisted must enlist or prepare to be called up at any time. Given the massive death toll, it’s probably not a spoiler to say that some survive the year and some don’t. I fully expected deaths and dire injuries, but who? How? And how will their loved ones back home cope?
At home, the women are beginning to take on responsibilities they’ve never had before. For instance, when the Morland’s grooms enlist or get called up, one after the other, with hardly any men left in York to do the work, the family ends up hiring a woman. Some of the men resist this development, but they see no way around it. It’s early days for this particular movement, but it’s easy to see where it’s going, and even at this stage, some of the characters are wondering how this shift will change things when the men return. There are also whispers of the future problem of surplus women. Only one of the Morland women of marriageable age is unmarried, but her future is unclear; and by the end of the book, there are newly widowed (or possibly widowed) young women who must consider their own futures. Right now, however, they’re just looking for ways to do their bit—as nurses, office workers, and pilots—as they hope for the safe return of the husbands and fathers they love. Every single character is touched by the war.
The scenes at the Battle of the Somme are as gripping as I come to expect from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and the contrast between these scenes and the equally well-written battles in earlier books is startling. There are so many deaths in such short spans of time, so many bodies that the men must climb over, so many injuries that seem impossible to survive. You know it’s bad when having your pinky finger blown off is seen as a minor injury.
As I approach the end of the series (only four books left), I must say that I am pleased to have gone through this journey with the Morland family. I’ve read lots of great historical fiction, and as individual novels I’m not sure this would rank as the best ever, but as a set, they are remarkable. Watching history unfold from one book to the next helps me see links that I might never have noticed. It’s a tremendous achievement, and I do wish there were more than four books left.