“England, 1914. Poppy is fifteen, beautiful and clever, but society has already carved out her destiny. There’s no question of her attending more school; it’s too expensive and unsuitable for a girl. Instead, Poppy will become a servant to the aristocratic de Vere family . . . and bury her feelings for their youngest son, Freddie. It doesn’t matter that Freddie seems to have fallen just as hard for Poppy. He could never marry a girl like her.
But the set path for Poppy’s life is irrevocably altered when it becomes clear that the war isn’t going to be over soon. The chains of class, wealth, and her gender no longer matter–England needs every able bodied person to serve in battle in some way. Which, for Poppy, means volunteering on the front lines as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. As she experiences what people are capable of–the best of humanity and the very worst–Poppy will find an unexpected freedom and discover how to be truly her own person.”
Poppy and its sequel, Poppy In the Field, were previously published in the United Kingdom to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, and now Bloomsbury USA Childrens will publish Poppy on August 30. I haven’t come across much YA literature set during the First World War, so I was very excited to receive an eARC of Poppy via Netgalley.
The eponymous heroine of Poppy is Poppy Pearson, a parlor maid for a wealthy family at the beginning of the war who ends up enlisting as a volunteer nurse. This first book focuses mainly on the societal expectations of 1915 England, especially as it relates to an ill-advised romance between Poppy and Freddie, the son of the family for whom Poppy works. The class divide and its subsequent break down following the war is a constant theme of WWI literature, because it marks such a shift in British society. But Poppy, and all of England, is still beholden to the “above/below stairs” mentality that would prevent them from being together. The way society and class relations are portrayed in Poppy were so intriguing and well written that it was one of my favorite aspects of this book.
That Poppy becomes a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse is obviously the biggest draw into this story, and it was fascinating to learn about how these young women were trained and their experiences aiding soldiers. This book allows Poppy (and the reader through her) to acclimate to the often horrific injuries soldiers sustained at the front, but also the methods of treatment available at the time. The soldiers joke about the “tin shop” where doctors could perform facial reconstruction on soldiers, and there’s even mention of “Dottyville,” the nicknamed hospital where soldiers suffering from shell shock were sent, including famed poet Siegfried Sassoon.
All that being said, this felt like a filler book, since it’s just setting the stage and giving us enough background information for Poppy to be sent off to the front lines in the sequel, Poppy In the Field. I am intrigued to read the sequel, because I think it’ll provide some of the more action-oriented excitement missing in Poppy. Poppy as a protagonist was lovely, and I liked seeing her grow as a person and into her role as a nurse. I did find that nearly all of the other characters felt overly simple, and at times a bit too trope-ish for my taste.
Someone without much knowledge of World War I will undoubtedly learn a lot of good, basic information about the war and society at the time. However, as an historian who did her masters dissertation on WWI, I felt it was a bit heavy handed at times. The best way I can think of to describe this is that Poppy read quite like the old Dear America books that Scholastic published when I was growing up. An imaginary girl at a certain historical event kept a journal, and throughout the book it was like the author ticked points off a list, so that by the end you knew all about say, voluntary nurses in England during WWI! And a very similar effect is accomplished by reading Poppy. Did that lessen my enjoyment? Not really.
I think Poppy is a great book for those historical fiction fans who want to learn more about WWI, and it also does a great job of representing the experience of women, especially working class women, in England during the war. I’ll be eagerly anticipating the sequel, should Bloomsbury decide to publish it in the US.
Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ . 5
*I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a free and honest review.