REVIEW: Living to See You by Bee Johnstone
From the deserts of North Africa to the fever wards back home, this wartime love story charts the distant courtship between a young Wellington Bomber pilot and a probationer nurse. He sees action above the skies of Egypt in one of the most hazardous missions of the Desert Airforce, while she cares for patients with the dreaded diseases of the age.
Their unfolding lives are intertwined by their letters as each struggles to survive the perils of war. For him, it is the brutal enemy attack as fighter planes swoop from a desert sky. For her, it is a different battle – against infectious diseases such as TB, diphtheria and polio in the days before antibiotics. They must both observe the rigid hierarchies of the time: whether it be Sister’s wrath on the wards or mute acceptance of the grim odds at each new desert landing ground.
It is not just their story, for they are part of a wider band of comrades. The young men who started on Tiger Moths could end up as fighter pilots, on Hurricanes or Spitfires, what of their future? The probationers may have survived the Blitz, but where will the State Registered nurses find themselves, during these intense early years of the war, when as Churchill said, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’
Living to See You is an action-packed novel that will bring the reader closer to the hopes and fears of a generation of young people who led extraordinary wartime lives.
Dear Ms. Johnstone,
The cover of this book caught my eye, different as it is from most historical romance book covers lately. Honor’s black probationer’s dress isn’t falling off nor is Will ripping off his RAF uniform. But the blurb decided me as it seemed a far cry from the standard home front WWII books I’ve read lately.
As I kept reading the book, it dawned on me that I shouldn’t be enjoying it as much as I am as it breaks so many tropes, rules and conventions. After beginning with a section on ward cleaner turned probationer (student nurse) Honor that lasted for 50 pages, the hero finally appeared as he made his way to his RAF training post. It’s still longer before they finally meet and that’s when Will is temporarily sent to where Honor was moved after her teaching hospital in London suffered a horrific direct bombing strike. A prone, feverish meeting isn’t exactly romance meet cute.
The story is spread across several other characters – some nursing friends and hospital colleagues of Honor’s and some fellow RAF pilot trainees with Will. Sometimes POV shift within a scene – though it’s always clear whose thoughts are whose – and occasionally we read the thoughts of someone only in one scene in the whole story. After I got used to that, I saw that it did allow for information to be conveyed to the reader which otherwise would have felt contrived if only the main characters “spoke” to us.
Since this is wartime with military characters learning to fly dangerous aircraft and then off to the various battle fronts as well as a time before antibiotics or many vaccines available now, deaths occur. Sometimes of characters we’ve come to like and are rooting for. Others are wounded or listed as missing in action. We see the horror of a botched abortion and how easily women could die from them.
Hunger is ever present as rationing is in full force despite the War Ag’s efforts to get farmers to grow more. Initially the news from the fronts is disheartening as Britain stands alone, hanging on in the face of defeats and setbacks. But the spirit of the British people is conveyed as undaunted, straighten up, keep going, we’re not giving in or up.
Will and Honor are separated for most of the book by study and training then Will’s posting to North Africa. But their letters are delightful to read as they grow closer despite being so far apart. They confide their hopes, fears and dreams and unlike a few other couples, decide to wait rather than have a hasty wedding. I could sense the love and longing between them.
The book is also much longer than most today – a real return to the meaty, lengthy, take-its-time historicals of yesteryear. Still if a reader isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of RAF training or probationer training – in sometimes grim detail – this might not be the book for them. I lapped it all up as it all came across as real rather then just something read in a text book or seen on a documentary.
This is a sweet romance – literally and figuratively. It’s a fresh take on England during the war years. Some parts are bittersweet but the epilogue gives assurances on some characters and gives us a lovely wedding I’d been looking forward to since Will gathered his courage, took the initiative and went after that pretty nurse even though he was flat on his back. B