Monday, 4 August 2014

Ellen's People by Dennis Hamley reviewed by Julia Jones

Ellen's People is the story of a young girl and her family struggling to survive the First World War. In August 1914 Ellen is just 16 and is living in the Sussex countryside with her parents, her older brother and two younger sisters. Her father is a signalman and has some strong 'anti-toff' views. Class suspicions, village tensions and family relationships make for an unexpected flare-up of local conflict when the recruiting officer arrives and Ellen's brother volunteers. There is, as any reader will guess, considerably worse to come.

Ellen's People is suitable for older children as well as adults. The horror and the strain of war is fully acknowledged but it is mediated through the central character, who is a loving and grieving sister rather than a combatant. There is a simplicity in the writing which is attractive and accessible and reflects Ellen's youthful personality. From a relatively sheltered position in the middle of her family she is forced out into the world and has to make her own accommodations with the mix of snobbery and kindliness that she encounters from her employers and others. Dennis Hamley is adept at conveying the social attitudes of a century ago while avoiding stereotypes. One of the pleasures of Ellen's People is the variousness of the characters, whatever their class. Their reactions are determined by their personal and moral qualities as much as by the conventions of their social position – though these are never underestimated.

I found Ellen's People a pacy, engrossing and convincing read -- though as an adult with a strong interest in history it didn't tell me anything about World War 1 that I didn't already know. But that wasn't why I was reading it.  Dennis Hamley is such an accomplished writer and develops Ellen as an engaging and honest observer as well as a quietly determined participant. I'll be glad to follow her in her postwar future though I don't suppose that her life is going to be easy as she attempts to settle back into the village. In these four traumatic years Ellen has learned too much about humanity to be comfortable with narrow class-based or nationalistic assumptions -- rather as the gallant Boer War veteran of the opening chapters had found himself dangerously out of sync with his neighbours back in the sunny days of August 1914.

Ellen's People is published as an ebook on August 4th 2014 and will soon be the first production from the newly founded Blank Page Press.
In the USA Ellen's People was published as Without Warning