Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows (Review by Rayissa Palmer)

Sometimes when you read novels set in the past, the writer gets so lost in the historical details, overburdened with narrative descriptive, that you lose the story and disconnect from the characters.  Not so with Deborah Burrows, Ambulance Girls.   

Set in London, during the Blitz of World War II, Ambulance Girls follows the story of Lily Brennan, an Australian girl who was looking for adventure from her small town life near Perth, Australia and found it in spades.  Ambulance Girls covers war, love, prejudice, classism, feminism, and a mystery all while the bombs and shrapnel are falling.  We meet diminutive Lily driving “The Monster,” her ambulance, on London’s bombed-out streets and the story begins.

My biggest takeaway from this book was getting a real glimpse into the life of a young woman in London during World War II.  My images in the past were more of damsels in distress, trying to contribute, but being held to certain standards and restraints.  Ambulance Girls opened up my eyes to what heroines and modern feminists many of the women of this time were.  I already knew that women had been taking on the traditional roles that men had, as the men were at war.   What I didn’t quite get before this book was how modern and forward thinking many of the women were, as the story unfolded through the eyes of our heroine, Lily.

Lily, described as doll-like with an almost Shirley Temple appearance, has the spunk of any modern day heroine.  She is a determined maniac behind the wheel, driving with her partner David Levy to rescue victims of the London bombings at night while more shrapnel and bombs explode around them.  And when David goes missing, Lily doesn’t listen to the men in her world as she is determined to find him.

And of course, during the course of the book, she begins to explore a relationship and love, with the formal yet charming RAF pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jim Vassilikov.

The other part of the book which was illuminating was the sexual freedom women were participating in.  Not that there were any sex scenes in the book, but the implied relationships and liberating choices were interesting to read about.  Women of those times struggled with choosing partners, pre-marital sex, and affairs as much as we do today.  Here were women with needs, making vastly different personal decisions in times of war, doing what they needed to do to survive.

And don’t let the cover turn you away, as it first did me.  The cover image and layout does not do a great job of representing the modern heroin and great story in the book.

Overall, this was a really good read.  I’d like to have been friends with Lily Brennan.  I imagine that there were many “Lily’s” in war-torn London and Deborah Burrows Ambulance Girls does a great job in writing about real women set during one of the toughest times in the world’s history.  Kudos to Deborah for making her characters relatable, modern, sometimes not always likable, but always real.  Here’s to the Ambulance Girls.

By Rayissa Palmer, www.homes4toronto.com