As the drums of war begin to beat louder on the continent, and life becomes more dangerous in cities, seventeen-year-old Jeannie McIver leaves the comfort of her Aunt’s house in Glasgow, to head to the wilds of the Scottish Uplands to start life as a Land Girl.
Jeannie soon falls in love with life on the busy Scottish hill farm, despite all of its hardships and challenges. She feels welcomed by the Cunningham family who values and cherishes her far more than her own rather remote and cold parents, and the work is rewarding.
She even finds her interest piqued by the brooding, attractive Tam, the son of the neighbouring farmer, and a sweet romance between them slowly blossoms. But even in the barren hills, they can’t avoid the hell of war, and as local men start disappearing off to fight at the Front, Jeannie’s idyllic life starts to crumble.
Those left behind try desperately to keep the home fires burning, but then Jeannie makes one devastating decision which changes the course of her and Tam’s lives forever.
Extract From God’s Acre – Dee Yates
3. For Sale January 2002
Liz can’t believe her luck when she sees the ‘For Sale’ sign attached drunkenly to the front gate. It is unclear from the dilapidated state of the cottage whether its most recent resident is living in a similar state of neglect or has given up the unequal battle and departed to pastures new, either in this world or the next. What is clear is that the cottage, whatever its current decrepit appearance, has the best view in the village. And although Liz has often heard quoted the maxim ‘Never buy a house for the view’, she feels certain that, in this case, there will be a queue of would-be purchasers.
The estate agent seems taken aback by the speed of her response. He agrees to show her round and they arrange a time and a day.
When, two days later, she steps into the cottage she sees that the description of it being ‘in need of some modernisation’ is no exaggeration. But she is not put off by the paucity of rooms – two in fact, with what is little more than a corridor squeezed between, quaintly described in the brochure as a galley kitchen. The meagre space of the cooking area is further depleted by a rusty metal ladder that leads up into the attic. Liz peers up the ladder and is met by darkness and a cold draught of musty air.
A row of blackened pans hang from hooks beneath a shelf running the length of the kitchen. On it are ranged baking trays, rusting metal biscuit tins, jars and containers of various sizes, a glass demijohn, furry with grey dust, and a set of weighing scales, their copper surface tarnished and dull. It seems to Liz as though she has stepped back several decades into the kind of house beloved of museum curators. A stone sink stands in the corner beneath a small window and, next to it, an electric cooker. On the floor, linoleum, cracked and lifting round the edges, reveals glimpses of the stone floor beneath. All that is needed, she thinks, is the model of a cook, in a black dress, frilly apron and starched hat, standing uncomfortably angled at the stove, wooden spoon poised over a never-boiling double pan of hollandaise sauce. Although, she realises, even as she imagines it, that a maid of that generation would not have had the advantage of electricity. This amenity has been listed with others as contributing to part of the cottage’s ‘modernisation’. Looking up at the metal lampshade suspended from a frayed twist of wire, Liz considers the word overstated.
‘I hope the owner doesn’t mind us looking round when she’s out,’ she says, seeing the further signs of habitation in the stained tea towel on a hook beneath the window and a greasy oven glove hanging by its side. She turns to Kenneth Mackie, the young man from the estate agent’s, who has ventured no further than the front door. He sniffs.
‘“She” was a “he”, actually. I believe the old chap died, so I’m sure he won’t mind you looking round.’
‘Oh, I’d no idea.’ She scans the room, seeing it with new eyes. ‘Did he live here long?’
‘I believe so.’
‘It doesn’t look as though he had many visitors. That’s sad.’
Her companion glances at his watch. ‘Perhaps you would like to see the rest of the cottage.’ His voice is bland, disinterested. It is clear that he has no opinion on the previous resident, dead or otherwise, or the property in his charge.
‘Yes… yes please.’ Liz follows him into the bedroom. It’s sparsely furnished, but the heavy, old-fashioned pieces fill the space. The bed is situated within a recess, where it can be closed off with a curtain. The curtain has been pulled back and hooked behind a chair and the bedcovers are crumpled, as though someone has been lying on top of them. This intimacy comes as a shock to Liz. She glances towards the door, eager to leave the room and look elsewhere.
The living room is a little more welcoming. In it, she can picture the old man going about his tasks. He must have been very old, she thinks, given the antiquity of the furniture. His favourite chair is drawn up to the fireplace. Ashes lie cold in the grate and litter the hearth. On a rag rug, down-at-heel slippers wait for their departed owner. A naked light bulb hangs from the centre of the ceiling. Against the wall opposite the fireplace stands a bookcase, stuffed with volumes in identical orange-brown covers and with indecipherable titles. A small sash window adorned with cobwebs rations the light entering the room. She walks over to it, examining the deep recess with its eighteen-inch-thick walls. Hopefully, these will keep out the chill of winter.
On the windowsill is propped a solitary photograph. It is sepia and blotted with age. Liz steps up to it slowly and stares at the smiling girl with a frizz of hair encircling her face. She is standing in a field and holds a bucket in one hand, a rake in the other. Around her and in the distance are sheep. But the girl has eyes only for the view in front of her. She is looking not at the photographer but to one side. The young face is radiant. But it is not this that causes her heart to leap. It is the familiarity of the image in front of her.
It is a photo of Liz’s own mother.
I received a copy of this book from Aria Fiction via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Told from several points of view, from a historical and current day perspective, ‘God’s Acre’ creates a vivid picture of life in rural Scotland during World War 2 and in the twenty-first century. It ‘s a story of coming of age, working in the Land Army and finding out that love and family are not always bound by blood.
Jeannie is a free spirit, she is clever, but is not allowed to follow the same educational path as her brothers. Her clergyman father feels she should help in his parish, but she wants independence and freedom. Joining the Land Army means living in a rural setting, but the people are friendly and she finds she fits. Meeting Tam is love at first sight, but he is troubled and she is young and naive and it seems their love story is doomed to fail.
Liz knows little of her mother’s background when she visits the Scottish village her mother often talked about. Finding a cottage for sale, she visits and finds a tenuous connection. She buys the cottage and tries to rebuild her life and discover what she can about her mother’s past.
The historical viewpoints of this story are poignant and page turning, there is so much heartache, but a real sense of family. Jeannie is a lovely woman but so naive and this flaw in her character changes her whole life.
Believable, complex characters drive this story forward and make it an excellent read. The setting is full of visual imagery and you can imagine what working on the farm at this time was like for Jeannie. The mystery of Jeannie is revealed in a letter to her daughter, it is full of sadness and transparency and underlines the heartbreaking waste, caused by misunderstanding and the inability to trust. Despite this, the ending is hopeful for Liz in the present day and ends this lovely story in a satisfying way.
Born and brought up in the south of England, the eldest girl of nine children, Dee moved north to Yorkshire to study medicine. She remained there, working in well-woman medicine and general practice and bringing up her three daughters. She retired slightly early at the end of 2003, in order to start writing, and wrote two books in the next three years. In 2007 she moved further north, to the beautiful Southern Uplands of Scotland. Here she fills her time with her three grandsons, helping in the local museum, the church and the school library, walking, gardening and reading. She writes historical fiction, poetry and more recently non-fiction. Occasionally she gets to compare notes with her youngest sister Sarah Flint who writes crime with blood-curdling descriptions which make Dee want to hide behind the settee.