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'Important read'

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Reviewer Lucy Connors shares her comments on 'Yvonne, Child of the Somme'

Sara Rowell depicts the heart wrenching true story of Yvonne Millet, a French girl whose mother was forced to abandon her due to the abysmal living conditions for single working-class women. This is not a unique story, but it is a devastating and important one.

Rowell’s investigation into Yvonne’s lost story, and the way of life her mother was forced into as a ‘domestique’ exposes the cruelty and desperation of poverty in early 20th century France and the trauma that resulted for so many. Rowell traces back through history, using censuses and archives to help untangle the mystery of Yvonne’s life. While it is clear just how much research has gone into this book, and how it has provided the framework around which Rowell has rebuilt and imagined Yvonne’s life, it does not feel like a history textbook. This is a compelling and engrossing read that carefully follows the strings of time and breathes life into a biography that was not even known to Yvonne’s family. Rowell shines a light on a sector of society that went unremarked on and untold, she writes ‘a tribute to all the children of early 20th century France whose lives were scarred by the poverty of their origins’. Yvonne lived and worked through both world wars, and Rowell investigates not only the roles she played in the war effort and the impact it had on the villages she lived in, but also how it opened the door for moments in which Yvonne and her eventual husband may have first met.

Yvonne and her family end up in England and that is the reason for Rowell’s discovery of and undertaking of this book. The seed was sown in the form of a conversation with a friend – remarking on the mystery that encompassed her Grand-mere’s life and a desire to find out something about her French heritage. It was something she never spoke about, proving just how deeply Yvonne’s traumatic childhood impacted her adult family life. While not every mystery in Yvonne’s life can be deciphered, Rowell gives us a likely imagining or multiple possibilities for those moments still shrouded in darkness, painting a real picture of what life was, and might have been like, for Yvonne, her mother, and those around her. It also reminds us of the beauty of chance encounters, and how the smallest acts of kindness can drastically change a life.

Yvonne, Child of the Somme uncovers not only Yvonne’s life story but the desperate stories of so many others who remain unseen. It is a thought provoking, page turning masterpiece, and an important read for any fans of historical fiction and biography.’

- Lucy Connors, August 2022

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