On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. As soon as she was able (45 minutes later), Mary North telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne, where she was skiing, and signed up. This rush was designed to circumvent her mother's forbiddance, for she would be certain to think it improper for the daughter of an MP.
Expecting to be assigned to an important position such as an assistant to a general, or a spy, Mary is confused when then place she reports to is a school, and, at first, appalled that she's expected to teach a class of 10-year-olds.
Mary eventually convinces herself that this is a necessary part of the war effort, and begins to enjoy it, but is crushed when the headmistress fires her just before the children are evacuated to the countryside.
She convinces the young district head, Tom Shaw, to let her teach students who were unable to evacuate, due to illness or disability. One of these students is an African-American boy named Zachary, who fascinates Mary, to the puzzlement of many.
The plot follows Mary and Tom and their friends and family through the long tenure of the war. And though this is a story of relationships: between Mary and Tom, Tom and his friend Alistair, Mary and her friend Hilda (and so many others), the real theme here is the effect of war on humans and their relationships.
Chris Cleave is unflinching in his descriptions: of Londoners enduring incessant air raids, of soldiers not just in the trenches, but those defending Allied locations in Europe.
The story is loosely based on the experiences of the author's grandparents David and Mary Hill, who became engaged just before David boarded a troopship for Malta. Cleave's research is thorough, and he describes this, as well as his inspirations in the book's preface.
Prepare to be riveted, and to be affected.
FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to Edelweiss and to the publisher for the e-galley. Also to Sarah Hill at SLJ for suggesting I read it.