Shirley Dickson’s latest novel, The Orphan’s Secret, is a beautifully crafted tale about an orphaned baby and a heart-breaking lie. Set in 1940s England, with the war raging on, Lily Armstrong has married John Radley and must quickly say goodbye as he leaves to fight for his country. As the war continues, Lily realises that every day is a gift and decides to help the war effort so she joins up with the Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army. For those unaware, in the Second World War, Britain faced a major shortage of timber. So, they opened up lumber work for women to replace their male counterparts. Lumberjills was the name commonly used for members of the Woman’s Timber Corps (WTC). Their responsibilities ranged from harvesting timber to manufacturing lumber. It is within the WTC that Lily meets Ethel, and a beautiful friendship blossoms between the two of them. Slowly Ethel opens up about her life, and she eventually reveals to Lily that she is pregnant.
Then, one night in July, Lily and Ethel find themselves seeking refuge in a shelter whilst the bombs rain down. When Lily rouses herself, she finds Ethel has been killed. Lily must now make a heart-breaking decision. To save this orphaned child would mean telling a harrowing lie. But what choice does she have?
Although it is cliché to call a novel a ‘rollercoaster of emotions’, Dickson’s latest novel is just that. It flits from heart-warming to heart-breaking within a blink of an eye, and it’s impossible to put the book down. It’s a beautiful but harrowing story of friendship, parenthood, family, and loss. What I enjoyed most about the novel was that nothing felt rushed or underdeveloped. ‘The Orphan’s Secret’ takes its time slowly building up these complex and multifaceted characters, particularly Ethel. Ethel’s story is haunting to read about, and really illustrates the casualties and tragedies of World War Two.
Furthermore, a real strength of Dickson’s writing is her impressive world building skills. From the horrors of bombing raids to the natural beauty of the Scottish forests, everything is so clearly described as we observe the actions of Lily and those close to her. Dickson’s work is at its most masterful when she is creating atmospheric and detailed settings.
What I found particularly special about this novel is the focus on the Lumberjills. It was not until 2007 that the WTC finally received formal recognition for their war efforts. Within this novel, Dickson expertly brings to life the incredible work these women did. It was wonderful to read about the women who stepped out of their comfort zones and pushed their bodies and minds to the limit.
Overall, The Orphan’s Secret is a beautiful novel that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Although undeniably this novel is about loss, it is impossible to walk away and feel despondent. There are so many heart-warming moments that remind you every day is a gift. An engaging and well-crafted piece of historical fiction.