Every now and again one my books receive a review that takes my breath away – that makes my day/week/month… even makes me think that, if I never write another word, this is what I’ll treasure. Something that says I succeeded in writing something I can be proud of.
This review from author Barb Taub covered not only one of my books, but the whole of the Haworth trilogy and the prequel. So chuffed was I that I copied, pasted and printed it off to pin on my notice board to remind me that I can write – even on the days when I am banging my head on the keyboard and writing xmjhnsdjhsdjhfjhf …
This is Barb’s review:
“We’ve all read epic family sagas—sweeping multi-generational tales like The Thorn Birds, The Godfather, Roots, the Star Wars franchise, and anything remotely connected to the British Monarchy. So as I read Judith Barrow’s Howarth Family trilogy, I kept trying to slot them into those multigenerational tropes:
*First generation, we were supposed to see the young protagonist starting a new life with a clean slate, perhaps in a new country.
*The next generation(s) are all about owning their position, fully assimilated and at home in their world.
*And the last generation is both rebel and synthesis, with more similarities to the first generation made possible by the confidence of belonging from the second one.
But the complex, three-dimensional miniatures I met in the first three books of the trilogy stubbornly refused to align with those tropes. First of all, there’s Mary Howarth—the child of parents born while Queen Victoria was still on the throne—who is poised between her parents’ Victorian constraints, adjustment to a world fighting a war, and their own human failures including abuse, alcoholism, and ignorance.When Pattern of Shadows begins in 1944, war-fueled anti-German sentiment is so strong, even the King has changed the British monarchy’s last name from Germanic Saxe-Coburg to Windsor. Mary’s beloved brother Tom is imprisoned because of his conscientious objector status, leaving their father to express his humiliation in physical and emotional abuse of his wife and daughters. Her brother Patrick rages at being forced to work in the mines instead of joining the army, while Mary herself works as a nurse treating German prisoners of war in an old mill now converted to a military prison hospital.
Mary’s family and friends are all struggling to survive the bombs, the deaths, the earthshaking changes to virtually every aspect of their world. We’ve all seen the stories about the war—plucky British going about their lives in cheerful defiance of the bombs, going to theaters, sipping tea perched on the wreckage, chins up and upper lips stiff in what Churchill called “their finest hour”. That wasn’t Mary’s war.
Her war is not a crucible but a magnifying glass, both enlarging and even inflaming each character’s flaws. Before the war, the Shuttleworth brothers might have smirked and swaggered, but they probably wouldn’t have considered assaulting, shooting, raping, or murdering their neighbors. Mary and her sister Ellen would have married local men and never had American or German lovers. Tom would have stayed in the closet, Mary’s father and his generation would have continued abusing their women behind their closed doors. And Mary wouldn’t have risked everything for the doomed love of Peter Schormann, an enemy doctor.
I was stunned by the level of historical research that went into every detail of these books. Windows aren’t just blacked out during the Blitz, for example. Instead, they are “criss crossed with sticky tape, giving the terraced houses a wounded appearance.” We’re given a detailed picture of a vanished world, where toilets are outside, houses are tiny, and privacy is a luxury.
The Granville Mill becomes a symbol of these dark changes. Once a cotton mill providing jobs and products, it’s now a prison camp that takes on a menacing identity of its own. Over the next two volumes of Howarth family’s story, it’s the mill that continues to represent the threats, hatred, and violence the war left behind.
Unlike the joyful scenes we’re used to, marking the end of the war and everyone’s return to prosperity and happiness, the war described in these books has a devastatingly long tail. When Changing Patterns takes up the story in 1950, Mary and Peter have been reunited and are living in Wales, along with her brother Tom.
But real life doesn’t include very many happy-ever-afters, and the Howarths have to live with the aftermath of the secrets each of them has kept. The weight of those secrets is revealed in their effect on the next generation, the children of the Howarth siblings. The battle between those secrets and their family bonds is a desperate one, because the life of a child hangs in the balance.
Finally, the saga seems to slide into those generational tropes in Living in the Shadows, the final book of the Howarth trilogy. Interestingly enough, this new generation does represent a blend of their preceding generations’ faults and strengths, but with the conviction of their modern identities. Where their parents’ generation had to hide their secrets, this new generation confidently faces their world: as gay, as handicapped, as unwed parents, and—ultimately shrugging off their parents’ sins—as family.
But I didn’t really understand all of that until I considered the title of the prequel (released after the trilogy). 100 Tiny Threads tells the story of that first generation, their demons, their loves, their hopes, and their failures, and most importantly, their strength to forge a life despite those failures. That book, along with the novella-sized group of short stories in Secrets, gives the final clues to understanding the trilogy. As Simone Signoret said, “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” And it’s both those secrets and those threads not only unite them into a family, but ultimately provide their strength.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that each of these wonderful books can be read alone. But no, don’t do that. In fact, if you haven’t read any of them, you’re luckier than I am, because you can start with the prequel and read in chronological order. I chose to review these books as a set, and I believe that’s how they should be read.
Every now and then, I come across books so beautifully written that their characters follow me around, demanding I understand their lives, their mistakes, their loves, and in this case, their families. Taken together, the Howarth Family stories are an achievement worth every one of the five stars I’d give them.”
An edited excerpt from the first of the trilogy, Pattern of Shadows. (Taken from the chapter where Mary Haworth, the protagonist – has just had her first date with Frank Shuttleworth.)
Frank stared into the flames for a couple of minutes and then said. ‘Tell me about your brother, Tom. Patrick told me he’s a Conscientious Objector. There doesn’t seem much love lost there.’
The anger flared immediately. ‘My younger brother has a big mouth. Tom’s a lovely bloke and entitled to his own beliefs.’
Frank held his hands up. ‘Whoa, I was only saying.’
‘Yes, well,’ Mary said, ‘for some reason, Patrick’s been jealous of him for as long as I can remember. Her voice faltered. ‘Look, I know what people think about COs. I’m not expecting you to feel any different. Let’s leave it for tonight.’
‘No. I want to know.’ Frank was insistent. ‘Tell me.’
Mary felt the clench of her stomach muscles. ‘Tom was always the odd one out, the only one in the family who still went to church when the rest of us lapsed years ago.’ How many times had she tried to understand the depths of Tom’s unquestioning faith? ‘His beliefs rule his life. It would have been easier for him if they didn’t. After it all came out, we discovered he’d belonged to a group in Manchester for ages. You know, meetings, talks on pacifism, how he felt about violence, how he felt it wrong to get involved with the war. When he first refused to sign up, he was given exemption, provided he continued to work in local government; he was in the Stationery Department. But he turned that down; he said he wouldn’t work for a government of a country at war.’ Mary met Frank’s stare. ‘He was sent to London to Wormwood Scrubs and he’s been there on and off ever since. They keep trying to make him do fire watching and he won’t do that either. They’ve extended his sentence loads of times. Dad won’t have his name mentioned in the house … won’t let Mam visit him, wouldn’t let him come home the times he’s been released.’
A memory of the last grubby bed-sit Tom lived in flashed into her mind. It had been in a part of Bradlow she didn’t even know existed, a maze of narrow streets lined with shabby back- to back terraced houses and filled with gangs of dirty kids and barking dogs. She’d studied the bit of paper with the address written on it before pushing her way past the two women smoking on the bottom step of a flight of stairs. The door to Tom’s room was open and for a moment she’d watched him sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, his arms sticking out of the sleeves of a jacket too small for him, his back shuddering with sobs.
‘They keep saying he has to do work that involves the war and he refuses. I think they do it for spite.’ Sparks flew from the fire onto the hearthrug and Frank reached out with his foot and stamped down on them. She couldn’t tell from his expression what he was thinking. ‘I admire what he did. I think it took a lot of courage.’
Frank leant forward, his hands clasped in front of him. Then he pressed his thumb against the first knuckle of each finger until it cracked. The noise jarred in the silence between them…
Links to buy:
About Barb Taub:
In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb Taub wrote a humor column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she’s lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled AussieDog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them consulting with her occasional co-author/daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.
Links to Barb:
Amazon. co.uk: https://amzn.to/3lgiJq3