The Poppy Factory contains two linked stories about the effects of combat on individuals. First we have Jess, back from front line service as a medic in Afghanistan. She’s loved her work, thinks she’s tough, but then everything goes wrong. She has flashbacks, violent nightmares and sudden rages. She drinks too much, trying to dull the pain and, as a result, destroys her relationship with Nate, the love of her life. Jess’s mother, a very understanding woman, says, ‘Something rather like that happened to your great-grandfather Alfred, too.’ She gives Jess her great-grandmother’s journal to read and from then on the narrative alternates between the two women.
Great-grandmother Rose married her sweetheart Alfie during the war. Her two brothers have been killed and Alfie returns from the war with one leg amputated. He’s inclined to think of himself as a useless wreck of a man and Rose starts to despair of the happy married life she’s dreamed of. Alfie, like Jess, suffers nightmares and anger and starts to drink himself senseless on money they can’t spare. Rose finds a job but Alfie’s old job has gone and he fails to get another, adding to his misery. Then the Poppy Factory opens opposite Rose’s place of work and it’s this which links the stories. The factory provides work for disabled servicemen, making artificial poppies for remembrance, just as today. Alfie looks on this as charity and refuses to ask for a job there. Back in the present day, a psychiatrist tells Jess about the modern work of The Poppy Factory, helping ex-service personnel find suitable employment. Like Alfie, Jess at first feels she doesn’t need any help. Will either of them accept that they have a problem and try to tackle it? It’s clear that there’s more help available for such people today than there was back in the early twentieth century.
I found Jess’s modern day story, a third person narrative, more believable than Rose’s. I enjoyed reading the details of Rose’s family life and her problems, but could not accept that an uneducated butcher’s daughter would have written in the way that she does. In particular, I found it incredible that Rose would be giving the modern reader little history lessons by describing the origins of The Poppy Factory. The idea for the poppies ‘was dreamed up by someone called Anna Guerin, and what a woman she must be!’ ‘She’s even been to visit Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig,’ (Perlease, call him Douglas Haig or Earl Haig but not ‘Earl Douglas Haig’!) Rose is supposed to have got all this information from newspapers: ‘The Sketch printed the poem by John McCrae that started it all off.’ The poem (In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row,) is then copied out in full into Rose’s journal. Sorry, I just couldn’t believe it.
It’s clear that Liz Trenow has been moved by the research she’s done for the book and it is a very compassionate account of what in Alfie’s case was called shell shock and in Jess’s, PTSD. At the end of the book there is praise for the work of The British Legion and you can read for yourself about the modern Poppy Factory here. This book should certainly sell a few poppies. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.
I think I’m going to give up reading new books which publishers have persuaded their authors to tie in to the First World War centenary. I just can’t put up with the historical inaccuracies. For instance, early in this book a young woman, at the end of the First World War, is slightly disappointed by a present she receives. ‘Nylons would have been much more welcome.’ Nylon wasn’t invented until 1935! I don’t think anyone at that time would have said a person was ‘made up’ when something pleased them, nor have used the expression ‘stuffing envelopes’ to describe a dull job. I don’t blame the authors for this type of error. They’re not social historians; they’re writing to a brief in order to earn a crust. As so often, the fault lies in the editing.