An irresistible debut set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist— a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.
London, 1940. Emmeline Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent suddenly seem achievable. But the job turns out to be working as a typist for the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.
Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant notes from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.
Prepare to fall head over heels for Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are gutsy and spirited, even in the face of a terrible blow. The irrepressible Emmy keeps writing letters in this hilarious and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Dear Mrs. Bird
When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst. I’d had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew. But when I saw the announcement, I could not have been more cock-a-hoop.
It was a quarter past three on one of those wretched December afternoons when the day seemed to start getting dark before it had quite made up its mind to be light, and even with two vests and a greatcoat on, it was impossible to get warm. Sitting on the top deck of the number 24 bus, I could see my breath if I huffed.
I was on my way home from my job as a secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and looking forward to a sit-down before my overnight shift on the fire-station telephones. I had already read every word of The Evening Chronicle’s news pages and was now looking at the horoscopes, which I didn’t believe in but thought worth a go just in case. For my best friend Bunty it said, “You will be in the money soon enough. Lucky animal: polecat,” which was promising, and for me, “Things may pick up eventually. Lucky fish: cod,” which in comparison was rather a dud.
And then I saw it, under “Situations Vacant,” squeezed between a position for Jam Boilers (no experience necessary) and a Mature Supervisor at an overalls factory (references preferred).
Part-time Junior required at
Launceston Press Ltd., publishers of
The London Evening Chronicle.
Must be capable, enthusiastic hard worker
with 60 wpm typing/110 wpm shorthand.
Letters soonest to Mrs. H. Bird,
Launceston Press Ltd., Launceston House,
It was the best job I had ever seen in my life.
If there was anything I wanted most in the world (other, of course, than for the war to end and Hitler to die a quite grisly death), it was to be a journalist. Or to be precise, what people in the know referred to as a Lady War Correspondent.
For the last ten years—ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as my prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve—I had dreamt of a journalistic career.
Now my heart beat like anything, thumping through the vests and the greatcoat and threatening to leap right out and onto the lady in the next seat. I was jolly grateful for the job at Strawman’s, but I was desperate to learn how to be a reporter. The sort of person who always had a notebook in hand, ready to sniff out Political Intrigue, launch Difficult Questions at Governmental Representatives, or, best of all, leap onto the last plane to a far-off country in order to send back Vital Reports of resistance and war.
At school my teachers had told me to simmer down and not have such excitable aspirations, even if English was my best subject. They stopped me writing to the Prime Minister about his Foreign Policy for the school magazine as well. It had been a dispiriting start.
Since then I had persevered, but finding a job when I had almost no experience had proved tricky, especially as I had set my heart on working for a newspaper in London’s Fleet Street. Although in general an optimist, even I didn’t think three summer holidays writing for The Little Whitfield Gazette was going to get me to Berlin.
But now here was my chance.
I examined the advert again, wondering if I might make the grade.
That was me, even if I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to be capable of.
I’d say. I was very nearly shouting like a mad person on the bus.
I would sleep on the office floor if that’s what it took.
* * *
I couldn’t wait to apply.
I rang the bell to get off at the next stop and at the jaunty ping the bus began to slow down. I grabbed my handbag, gas mask, and the onion, shoved the newspaper under my arm, and hurried downstairs double quick, managing to leave one of my gloves behind in the rush.
“Thank you,” I shouted at the conductress, narrowly avoiding flattening her as I leapt off the back of the bus.
It hadn’t quite come to a halt next to where Boots the Chemist was still open despite having had all its windows blown out the week before last, but I jumped onto what remained of the pavement and began to head towards home.
Boots wasn’t the only shop to have taken a biff during the raids. The whole street had had a rotten time of it. The grocer’s was now little more than half a wall and some rubble, four of the flats next door had been completely bombed out, and there was just a big gap where Mr. Parsons’ wool shop had been. Pimlico may still have had its chin up, but it hadn’t been without loss.
Hurdling craters, I ran across the street, slowing down as I called a hello to Mr. Bone the newsagent (“With my name you’d think I’d be a butcher!”), who was rearranging a stack of papers outside his shop. He had his warden’s overalls on already and blew on his fingers to keep warm.
“Afternoon, Emmy,” he said between puffs. “Have you got the early edition? Lovely picture of Their Majesties on the front page.” He smiled brightly. Despite everything the war had done to him, Mr. Bone was the most cheery man I knew. It didn’t matter how horrible the news was, he always pointed out something nice. “No, don’t stop—I can see you’re in a bit of a rush.”
Usually I would stay to chat about the day’s news. Mr. Bone sometimes gave me back issues of newspapers or Picture Post if someone had reserved one but forgotten to collect it, even if he was meant to send them back to the publisher, but today I just had to get home.
“Page two, Mr. Bone,” I shouted gratefully. “The Chronicle needs a Junior. I think this might be the one!”
Mr. Bone was terrifically supportive of my dream to become a Lady War Correspondent, even if he did worry about my wanting to go behind enemy lines, and now he broke into an even bigger smile and waved a copy of the evening paper in triumph.
“That’s the spirit, Emmy,” he shouted. “Best of luck. I’ll save you today’s Times.”
I yelled a thank-you and waved my free hand wildly as I ran on to the end of the road. A few minutes more and then a sharp right, avoiding two elderly ladies who were showing great interest in Walter the hot potato man, most probably because of the warmth, and then past the tearooms to home.
Bunty and I shared a flat on the top floor of her granny’s house in Braybon Street. If there was an air raid, it could be a mad dash downstairs to the Anderson shelter in the garden, but we were used to it by now so it didn’t worry us unduly, and we were awfully lucky to live there for free.
I threw open the front door, rushed across the tiled hallway and up the stairs.
“BUNTY,” I shouted, hoping she might hear me from three floors up. “You’ll never guess what. I’ve got the best ever news.”
By the time I made it to the top of the stairs, Bunty had appeared from her bedroom, wearing her dressing gown and wiping sleep out of her eyes. She was working nights as a secretary at the War Office but of course had to be very tight-lipped about exactly what that involved.
“Have we won the war?” she said. “They didn’t say anything at work.”
“Only a matter of time,” I said. “No, but look, next best thing.”
I shoved the newspaper into her hand.
“No, you idiot. Underneath.”
Bunty grinned and scanned the page again, her eyes widening as she saw the advertisement.
“Oh my LORD.” Her voice got louder with every word. “EMMY, THIS IS YOUR JOB.”
I nodded violently.
“Do you think so? Really? It is, isn’t it?” I said, not making any sense.
“Of course it is. You’re going to be marvellous.”
Bunty was the most loyal friend in the world. She was also tremendously practical, and leapt into action with immediate effect.
“You need to write to them today. Be the first in line. Mr. Strawman will give you a reference, won’t he? And Captain Davies at the station. Oh goodness—will you still be able to do your shifts there?”
As well as my day-time position at the solicitors, I had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service as a volunteer before the start of the Blitz. My brother, Jack, had been flying and fighting like mad and it was high time I pulled my weight too. Bunty’s boyfriend, William, was a full-time fireman on B Watch and when he suggested volunteering as a telephone operator at Carlton Street fire station, it sounded ideal. I would work three nights a week and fit it in around my secretarial job. An interview with the station’s Captain Davies, a medical to make sure I wasn’t about to conk out, and there I was. Smart navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and as proud as punch in my cap with its AFS badge.
Bunty and I had known William since we were children, and when I joined the Service our village newspaper had come up to London and taken a picture of the three of us. They printed it with the headline “Little Whitfield to the Rescue” and made it sound as if William and Bunty and I were responsible for keeping the entire city safe and the War Office going, all on our own. They’d mentioned my fiancé, Edmund, too, which was lovely, as he was from Little Whitfield as well, even if they did slightly imply he was in charge of half the Royal Artillery, which Edmund said was rather a stretch. I’d sent him the cutting and it had given him a good laugh. It was nice that the paper had talked about us all. It made it feel like old times, before the war got in the way and Edmund got sent halfway round the world.
Within two weeks of my joining the Fire Service, the Germans had started having a go at London and I was pleased to be useful in some way. My friend Thelma on B Watch said that even if I couldn’t be a Lady War Correspondent just yet, at least I was doing my bit.
“Oh good, it’s part-time,” said Bunty, reading the advert again and answering her own question. She had stopped shouting now and become deadly earnest. “Honestly, Emmy,” she said. “This could be your big chance.”
We looked at each other for a moment, considering its enormity.
“I bet you’re right up to date on Current Affairs,” she said. “They’ll be ever so impressed.”
“I don’t know, Bunts,” I said, suddenly nervy. “They’ll have awfully high standards, even for a Junior. Could you test me?”
We headed into the living room, where two piles of magazines and three scrapbooks of news cuttings were balancing precariously on the coffee table. I took off my hat and reached into my bag, pulling out the notebook I always carried Just In Case and then flicking through to the back where I had written APPENDIX in large red letters and then MEMBERS OF THE WAR CABINET on the next line.
I handed it to Bunty, who had plonked herself on the sofa.
“I’ll pretend to interview you,” she said, pointing at the least comfortable chair in the room. “And I shall be very stern. First off, who’s Chancellor of the Exchequer?”
“Sir Kingsley Wood,” I said as I unbuttoned my coat and sat down. “That’s easy.”
“Well done,” said Bunty. “All right then, Lord President of the Council? Do you know, I can’t wait for you to start. Your parents are going to be so pleased.”
“Sir John Anderson,” I said, answering the question. “Steady on though, I haven’t got the job yet. I hope Mother and Father will be happy about it. They’ll probably worry about my having to do dangerous things.”
“But they’ll pretend they’re absolutely fine,” said Bunty. We both grinned. Bunty knew my parents almost as well as I did. Our fathers had been friends in the Great War and she was very much part of the family.
“Ask me a really hard one,” I said.
“Righto,” said Bunty, and then stopped. “Oh, I’ve just thought. What do you think Edmund will say? I reckon he’ll have a blue fit,” she added, before I could answer.
I wanted to jump to his defence, but Bunty did have a point. Edmund and I had been seeing each other for ages and been engaged for the last eighteen months. He was wonderful—clever and thoughtful and caring—but he didn’t exactly applaud my hopes of a career in newspapers. Sometimes he could be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.
“He’s not that bad,” I said, being loyal. “I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”
“And you’ll take the job even if he isn’t,” added Bunty with confidence.
“Crikey, yes,” I said. “If I’m offered it.” I loved Edmund but I wasn’t going to be a doormat about things.
“I do so hope they’ll give you the job,” said Bunty, crossing her fingers. “They have to.”
“Can you imagine? A Junior at The Evening Chronicle.” I stared into space, seeing myself tearing around London in a taxi, poised for a scoop. “The start of a Journalistic Career.”
“Good for you!” said Bunty earnestly. “Will you specialise as a Lady War Correspondent, do you think?”
“Oh yes, I hope so. I shall wear trousers, and after we’ve won the war I will save up for my own car and Edmund and I can rent a flat in Westminster, and I shall probably smoke and spend my evenings at the theatre or saying droll things at the Café de Paris.”
Bunty looked enthusiastic. “I can’t wait,” she said, as if we were booking it in for the week after next. “If Bill doesn’t ask me to marry him, I might pursue a career in politics.”
Before war broke out Bunty’s boyfriend had been studying to become an architect. He’d planned to qualify and start earning some money before they got engaged.
“Oh, Bunts, that’s a splendid idea,” I said, impressed. “I didn’t realise you were interested in that sort of thing.”
“Well, I’m not terribly, not yet anyway. But I’m sure lots of MPs will want a rest after we’ve won, and I’ve always liked the idea of being on the wireless.”
“Good thinking. And people will respect you as you’ve worked at the War Office.”
“But I shall never speak of it.”
Things had really perked up. I was going to be a journalist and Bunty was going to be on the BBC.
“Right,” I said, getting up. “I’m going to write my application letter and then go down to the station and try and see Captain Davies. I’m not sure how being a volunteer telephone operator is going to get me a job at The Evening Chronicle, but it can’t do any harm.”
“Rubbish,” said Bunty. “It’s perfect. If you can keep answering phones in the middle of Hitler trying to blow us all up, you’ll be absolutely top-notch when you’re a Lady War Correspondent under fire. William says you’re the pluckiest girl on the watch and you didn’t even turn a hair when Derek Hobson came back in from a job really bashed up.”
“Well, I am first-aid monitor,” I said. I didn’t really want to think about it. You didn’t make a fuss about that sort of thing, but it had been a horrible night and Derek was still off on leave.
Bunty picked up the newspaper again. “You’re jolly plucky,” she said. “And you’re going to be smashing at your new job. Now, you’d better get on,” she said, handing the paper to me. “It says ‘letters soonest’ . . .”
“Honestly,” I said, taking it from her and going a bit glassy-eyed. “I can’t believe this might actually come true.”
Bunty grinned and said, “You just wait.”
I picked up my bag, took out my best fountain pen, and started to write.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Dear Mrs. Bird includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “There’s nothing that can’t be sorted with common sense and a strong will,” (page 36) begins the description of Mrs. Bird’s column, Henrietta Helps. In theory, that’s not such a bad approach, but how does it fall short of addressing her readers’ concerns?
2. Why does the memory of her friend Kitty’s experience affect Emmy so strongly? How does it inform her actions?
3. Author AJ Pearce incorporates charmingly old-fashioned expressions to help convey a sense of the time period. What were some of your favorite terms? Did the language help your understanding of the era and the characters’ personalities?
4. Mr. Collins advises Emmy, “Find out what you’re good at . . . and then get even better. That’s the key,” (page 54). Is this good advice for Emmy? Does she follow it?
5. Why does Emmy hesitate to tell Bunty about writing to Mrs. Bird’s readers? Is she only worried about Bunty’s disapproval, or is it more than that? How do secrets affect their friendship throughout the novel?
6. Do you think Emmy was right to confront William after he rescued the two children? Was his reaction warranted? Why do you think they took such different views of the event?
7. One of the major themes of the novel is friendship. Discuss Emmy and Bunty’s relationship, and all the ways they support and encourage each other over the course of the novel.
8. After the bombing at Café de Paris, Bunty is distraught and angry, but is some of her critique of Emmy fair? Does Emmy interfere too much?
9. Whether it’s readers writing in to Mrs. Bird, Charles writing to Emmy, or Emmy writing to Bunty, letters are of great importance throughout Dear Mrs. Bird. How does letter-writing shape the narrative?
10. The letter from Anxious on page 239 strikes a chord with Emmy. She thinks, “How often did we say well done to our readers? How often did anyone ever tell women they were doing a good job? That they didn’t need to be made of steel all the time? That it was all right to feel a bit down?” (page 243). How did the book make you think differently about women’s experiences in wartime?
11. Emmy’s mother says to her, “Once this silly business is all sorted, you and Bunty and all your friends will be able to get on and achieve whatever you want” (page 86). How much do you think expectations have changed for young women since World War II? What careers do you think Emmy and Bunty would aspire to if they were young now?
12. In the Author’s Note (page 277), AJ Pearce describes how reading advice columns in vintage magazines inspired her to write Dear Mrs. Bird. She says, “I found them thought-provoking, moving, and inspirational, and my admiration for the women of that time never stops growing. . . . It is a privilege to look into their world and remember what incredible women and girls they all were” (page 278). Discuss how magazines, then and now, provide a unique window into people’s lives.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Discuss advice columns as a group. Do you read them? Which ones? What are some of the group’s favorites? Bring some advice columns in and discuss them together. How would you write an advice column?
2. On pages 204 and 205, Emmy describes seeing propaganda posters meant to motivate and boost morale on the British home front during the war. Visit the Imperial War Museum’s website to see examples: www.iwm.org.uk/learning/resources/second-world-war-posters.