It’s 1938. Eighteen-year-old Elenor Cardew lives on a farm in Cornwall with her two brothers. Life is mostly drudgery, with her brothers’ expectations of her central role of taking care of them. And then an aunt, her dead mother’s sister, requires her to come to Coventry to take care of her as her health is failing.
At first, the aunt and her attitude seem little better than that of her brothers. A couple, George and Rose Sherbourne, and their five-year-old daughter Rose live in the home, Victoria serving as housekeeper and George behaving boorishly on a good day. He’s a tutor, and he’s often away. Rose, however, is bubbly and almost irrepressible, although she’s treated rather coldly by her parents.
As the months pass, the aunt warms to Elenor and arranges for her to buy some decent clothes. The aunt’s sternness gives way to genuine affection. Elenor grows close to Rose, while George and Victoria remain somewhat odd. And the clock is ticking toward September 1939 and the prospect of war. Elenor meets a young Canadian airman stationed near Coventry and finds herself falling in love. The aunt dies in the spring of 1939, and Elenor learns she’s her aunt’s heir.
|The city centre of Coventry after the Move,ber 1940 blitz|
The war starts; Elenor’s brother both enlist in the army and are caught at Dunkirk. Assigned to be the remained guard fighting the Germans while the main army escapes, neither brother returns. Elenor goes back to Cornwall to care for the farm and undertake a general rehabilitation of the property, farmhouse, and farming practices. Her brothers left a mess.
Coventry experiences the firebombing of November 1940; only Rose survives of her family. She’s brought by a friend to Cornwall; Elenor had been listed as next of kin. It’s after she arrives that Elenor discovers the little girl carries a dangerous secret with her.
The Secret Orphan by Glynis Peters tells the story of Elenor and Rose, and what happens when Elenor determines to protect the child at all costs. It also tells the story of Coventry, of life on an English farm during wartime, the ongoing prospect of enemy bombing, even on farms, and the romance between and English girl and a Canadian airman.
The novel is Peters’ first, and when it was published in 2018, it reached several international bestseller lists. The author lives in Dovercourt, Essex, England. A grandson lives in Canada – and that’s why she introduced a Canadian pilot as one of the novel’s characters.
It’s a good story of England before and during wartime. It might have done to exclude a character or two; the Land Girl assigned to the farm was interesting but doesn’t really advance the narrative. And an epilogue that ended as the book began – with an elderly Rose reliving some of her memories – would have tied it together. But The Secret Orphan is still an enjoyable story.