Green Hands, by Barbara Whitton – book review

Green Hands by Barbara Whitton is the latest reissue of a Second World War novel by the Imperial War Museum. It tells the story of Bee, Anne and Pauline as they attempt to serve as Land Girls in remote Scotland and Northumbria. Life for the three is not plain sailing: they are thrown in to their back breaking work and dared to fail. Indeed, Anne does fail, but Bee and Pauline go on to have various adventures. We are with them as they deliver milk, bring in the harvest and undertake chaste dates with the local young men.

Parts of this book are extremely funny: narrator Bee finds absurdity among the hedgerows. The book reflects the fun experienced by the writer during her own time in the Women’s Land Army. To an extent the story is about having adventures in your late teens: Bee would probably thrive anywhere, and Pauline would be awkward anywhere. Bee’s work as a milkie is not that different from my own experience in the trade over 40 years later. As a result, I occasionally related to the book as though it was a travelogue: Bee and Pauline encounter Spital Tongues in the same way that young people would later work on kibbutzim, or take a trail in south east Asia. In the film adaptation, Bee will be played by a young Kate Winslet. All this makes me wonder whether there are accounts of the land girl army from the point of view of the farmers who to a greater or lesser extent welcomed the women into their homes and onto their hearths. Glen, the self-taught farmer who appears in Green Hands, would have a tale worth hearing.

In some ways the women are treated abominably: there is teasing which would these days be seen as bullying, and they are set up to fail by a boss whose refrain is that none of this is work for a woman and who wants to be proven right. But I can’t imagine that their hardships were any different from the women in factories or any other traditionally male workplaces. Certainly they would have been understood by and were relatable to their contemporary audience of 1943. By this time the Land Army was no longer recruiting, but the need to keep up morale continued.

Green Hands therefore occupies a special place within the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series. It can be read for entertainment and while it gives us an insight into the bruising nature of Land Girlery it is a place of joy and wit. Never before have cold baths, raw hands and aching limbs seemed such fun.

You can get Green Hands here (affiliate link).

Thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour and to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy.

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