The Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas #BookReview #BlogTour

March, 1940. Victoria Station, Manchester.

Mabel is determined to make a fresh start as a railway girl where no one will know the terrible thing she did and she can put her guilt behind her... Or is she just running away?

Meanwhile Joan will never be as good as her sister, or so her Gran keeps telling her. A new job as a station clerk could be just the thing she needs to forget her troubles at home.

And Dot is further into her forties than she cares to admit. Her beloved sons are away fighting and her husband – well, the less said about him the better. She is anxious to become a railway girl just like her dear mam had before her – anything to feel she is supporting the sons she prays for every night.

Together they will face any storm, to bring their boys home safe and prove themselves on Britain’s railways.

It's such a pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for The Railway Girls today. Many thanks to Maisie Thomas and Rachel Kennedy from Arrow for inviting me and for my advance digital copy of the novel, received through Netgalley.

The Railway Girls is the first novel in Maisie Thomas's new series and opens in 1940 during the so-called Phoney War when the sense of immediate danger has diminished somewhat and some evacuee children have returned to their homes as it seems that little is happening. With men joining or being called up, women are needed to fulfil vital jobs in the workforce but their presence isn't always appreciated - and it's not always just the men who disapprove.
As the introduction to a series, the first few chapters are intended to present the cast of characters and to set the scene so the pacing is necessarily a little slower at first before the storyline really begins to take shape. Three women are primarily featured here but I look forward to learning more about the others in subsequent books. In the meantime, Mabel, Joan and Dot are all very different but have equally interesting stories. Both Mabel and Joan seem to be hiding something and throughout the novel which means they remain rather mysterious, even as their personalities take shape. Mabel is evidently grieving a fairly recent loss and it has clearly left her wracked with guilt but what did she do? Coming from new money, she doesn't quite fit in anywhere and attempts to put up barriers, convinced that she doesn't deserve to make friends. She is actually a very likeable woman who steps up with great courage to assist injured and dying men returning from Dunkirk, and as the story progresses I found myself fervently hoping that she would accept the offer of friendship and support she so obviously needs, particularly after an especially difficult time.
As Manchester suffers the devastation of the Blitz, they all need to lean on one another and on their loved ones but although Joan has a close and loving relationship with her sister, Letitia, the same can't be said for her grandmother. Of all the characters, I found Gran to be one of the most disagreeable. Poor Joan is constantly compared to her clever sister and Gran is also horribly prudish and judgemental. She occasionally shows a few glimpses of kindness, however, and it does seem that she loves the sisters in her own way. The same can't be said for her opinion of the girls' mother, Estelle, whose name is used as a warning and a threat to them by their grandmother; although there is some explanation of why in this book, it's something I'm sure will be a recurrent part of the storyline and I'm looking forward to more undoubtedly dramatic scenes in the future.
Although I really enjoyed getting to know both Mabel and Joan and found the chapters focused on them to be engrossing, I must admit to developing an early favourite character in the shape of the wonderful Dot. She is a middle-aged woman who is most definitely put upon by her family - especially her mealy-mouthed husband, Reg. She is a kind, thoughtful woman who has spent years looking after her family but now she is desperate for her own identity. The Railway Girls really celebrates the strength of women and I found it rather heartening that the two characters who are most prepared to challenge and speak out against the bad behaviour of some of the men are Dot and another married and slightly older woman, Cordelia.  Despite facing doubts from a number of her new male colleagues about her ability to carry out her role as a porter adequately, Dot is capable and forthright at work so her wearied acceptance of Reg's dismissive attitude is an important reminder of how much of society at the time still viewed women, meaning that in some ways they almost welcomed the war as a means to escape the bonds of domesticity. However, Maisie Thomas writes with great insight throughout and as much as I cheered on the women's various successes, I appreciated the perceptive explanation as to why men might have objected to women taking on traditionally male roles in the workforce.  
The author's thorough research is plain to see, especially when it comes to the scenes set at the railway. I found it absolutely fascinating - and really quite humbling at times - to learn of the different roles that women were expected to carry out there, from working as a desk clerk to more physical work such as porting or maintenance of the permanent way. The close friendships that form between the women, despite coming from very different backgrounds and being different ages meant that I was soon captivated by The Railway Girls and shared in their laughs and their tears. It would be impossible not to warm to these remarkable women who stand up for one another, volunteer for frightening and dangerous work, manage to run their homes, and cope with fear and heartbreak, all while being patronised and belittled by the men who begrudge them stepping into the jobs they consider to be outside their rightful place in society. Touching, exciting and thoroughly engaging; I'm already invested in the lives of The Railway Girls and can't wait to read Secrets of the Railway Girls later this year.

The Railway Girls is published by Arrow, purchasing links can be found here but whenever possible please consider supporting our wonderful independent bookstores.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author
Maisie Thomas was born and brought up in Manchester, which provides the location for her Railway Girls novels. She loves writing stories with strong female characters, set in times when women needed determination and vision to make their mark. The Railway Girls series is inspired by her great aunt Jessie, who worked as a railway clerk during the First World War. Maisie now lives on the beautiful North Wales coast with her railway enthusiast husband, Kevin, and their two rescue cats. They often enjoy holidays chugging up and down the UK’s heritage steam railways.