Imagine, if you will, Hyacinth Bucket as a World War II spy.
Quite a stretch, I know, but I couldn’t help picturing Hyacinth when I read The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan.
It’s World War II and German bombers continue to pound London and parts of England relentlessly. All across England, men, women, and children in cities and villages frantically work to “do their bit” to defeat Hitler and the Nazi terror.
One of these is Mrs. Braithwaite, described as a “self-appointed queen of her English village.” In her role, she relentlessly drives the other women to knit more and better, provide better items for the jumble sales, and live up to her own impossibly high standards.
But Mrs. Braithwaite’s world crumbles around her.
First, her husband leaves to join his mistress. The couple’s only daughter, Betty, goes to London when the first rumbles of war are heard. The mother-daughter pair have never been close, but Mrs. Braithwaite feels her absence keenly.
Finally, the rest of the village women eventually rebel and oust her from her role as leader of their group. Dethroned, despised, and dismissed, Mrs. Braithwaite hotfoots it to London to find Betty and begin to put her life back together.
At age 50, Mrs. Braithwaithe is a force to be reckoned with, but even she isn’t prepared for a bombed out London. Of course, she’s heard and read news reports of the bombings, but secluded in her village, she hasn’t yet seen a German plane fly over.
Arriving at the rooming house where Betty resides, Mrs. Braithwaithe is somewhat shaken to learn that Betty hasn’t been seen in days. With the chaos left by the nightly bombings, who knows what has befallen her?
Mrs. Braithwaite quickly determines to find Betty. Such things as German bombs, spies, and other dangers mean little to a mother searching for her daughter.
Dragging along Mr. Norris, Betty’s meek landlord, Mrs. Braithwaite plunges headfirst into a search that takes her into very dangerous waters indeed. She learns firsthand about the black market, fifth-column activists, kidnappings, and even murders.
As a result, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her lifelong notions of status, class, and reputation and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world was overturned: How does one measure the success of one’s life?”
The Spies of Shilling Lane is a moving and well-crafted novel. Penned by the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, it moves along at a rapid pace. At times somewhat comical, it examines questions we all have about life and our place in it.
Stokely Memorial Library now has The Spies of Shilling Lane, as well as The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. I highly recommend them both.
Located at 383 East Broadway, Stokely Memorial Library is open Mondays—Saturdays from 10-5 and may be reached by telephone at 423-623-3832.