I so enjoyed reading The Little Wartime Library, all the more so perhaps because the library based in an underground station really did exist. You can read more about it in this article by the author from The Guardian last year: Bethnal Green Library
The book tells the story of Clara, the librarian at the Underground Library, and her friend Ruby who is the library assistant. Weaving historical facts into the fictional lives of the women made for a really compelling reading experience. In the unfinished Bethnal Green underground station, there was a whole community with bunkbeds offering a safe place to sleep for thousands of East Londoners, a theatre for entertainment, a café and a nursery as well as the lending library. There were organised activities such as story time for younger readers and book groups. All aspects of life really were found in the shelter and although a strong sense of community is obvious, the author doesn’t shy away from more difficult issues such as domestic abuse and mental health.
I really enjoyed all the quotations from real librarians at the start of each chapter, chosen from interviews the author conducted with 100 librarians to mark the 100 years Bethnal Green Library is, thankfully, celebrating this year. Quite often the quotations were reflected in an aspect of the story in that chapter. I loved the one about librarians being ‘facilitators of joy’ – they really are!
What struck me most about the book were the acts of courage, big and small, displayed by so many throughout the book. Courage was shown in so many ways and not just by those going off to fight. Clara stands up to injustice so often particularly against her boss who tried to restrict access to certain books. Ruby and her mother show great courage in difficult and dangerous situations. Beatty and Marie, two young evacuees from Jersey, have been through so much and are so brave in the way they support each other and are determined to stick together. One of Clara’s library visitors, young Sparrow, is a particularly memorable coming up against adversity so many times and yet somehow coming through it all stronger. When he gets a mention at the end of the book, I felt such a sense of pride in him, as if I’d actually known him myself! I think that’s a reflection of how good Kate Thompson’s writing is, that she really makes you feel that these characters are real.
The Little Wartime Library is warm and uplifting historical fiction. It’s quite inspiring to think about all the struggles the people faced in the war and the way they faced these with courage and resourcefulness. Through the lives of Clara and Ruby and the other occupants of the Bethnal Green shelter we get a glimpse into the extraordinary ways people got through the Second World War, all made to feel so real because of the historical details seamlessly woven into the story. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys well-researched and compelling historical fiction.
Thank you to the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book. The Little Wartime Library is published by Hodder & Stoughton and available now in hardback and e-book formats.
The paperback edition will follow in September this year.
About the book
Clara Button is no ordinary librarian. While the world remains at war, in East London Clara has created the country’s only underground library, built over the tracks in the disused Bethnal Green tube station. Down here a secret community thrives: with thousands of bunk beds, a nursery, a café and a theatre offering shelter, solace and escape from the bombs that fall above.
Along with her glamorous best friend and library assistant Ruby Munroe, Clara ensures the library is the beating heart of life underground. But as the war drags on, the women’s determination to remain strong in the face of adversity is tested to the limits when it seems it may come at the price of keeping those closest to them alive.
Based on true events, The Little Wartime Library is a gripping and heart-wrenching page-turner that remembers one of the greatest resistance stories of the war.
About the Author
Kate Thompson was born in London in 1974, and worked as a journalist for twenty years on women’s magazines and national newspapers. She now lives in Sunbury with her husband, two sons and a Lurcher called Ted. After ghost writing five memoirs, Kate moved into fiction. Kate’s first non-fiction social history documenting the forgotten histories of East End matriarchy, The Stepney Doorstep Society, was published in 2018 by Penguin. Her seventh novel, The Little Wartime Library was published by Hodder & Stoughton in the spring of 2022.