Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

Chapters is brilliant.  Slap a “Buy 3 Get the 4th Free” sticker on a bunch of books and watch me spend 20 minutes trying to figure out what I want to buy.  Clever bastards… anyway, that’s what brought me to my latest read Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear.  To be fair, Maisie was a last minute addition to my pile (I had accidentally picked up two of the same book, and had a rush to find a replacement), but I’m really glad I did.  As the cover proclaims, this is the first book of a series, and I think I’ll enjoy adding Winspear to my rotation of authors.  But, lets back up a second here, and talk about Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie Dobbs tells the story of Maisie Dobbs.  Well, duh.  Admittedly, it’s not the best name for the first book a series.  Regardless, Maisie’s story begins before the First World War, when she was a downstairs maid for Lady Rowan.  A clever girl, and voracious reader, Maisie was discovered one night reading in the Lady’s library, and was then allowed to pursue an education few women at that time were allowed, let along a maid.  While at Girton College, the Great War begins, and Maisie decides to leave behind the comfort of England and enlist as a nurse.  Following the War, Maisie moves to London and becomes a private detective.  Coupled with this back-story, Maisie Dobbs also tells the story of one of her cases.

When you lay out the plot like that, it seems rather neat and tidy, but Winspear makes an organizational choice in laying out the plot that I didn’t like – the reader gets the first half of the private detective story, then Maisie’s entire back-story, then the conclusion of the private detective story.  This flow leaves something to be desired.  As it is the first book featuring this character, I’m assuming that the back-story will not be repeated; I can only imagine that subsequent books will build on this private detective angle.

Regardless of this bump in the road (major though it was), I really enjoyed this work.  Winspear is able to capture the feel of pre- and post-War England, as well as the battle field.  It is an interesting time-period to write about - this is the era in which the old-school class traditions really begin to erode in England, but are still present and observable; women as starting to be viewed as equals to men out of both necessity and insistence; and modernization is picking up steam (yes, I know that’s a bad pun) in Europe.  Winspear tapped into all these developments to create an ambiance that never seems wrong or out of place.

Where she excels though (in my opinion), is her description of the nursing profession during the time.  I’ve recently begun working for a nursing organization, and there’s been some talk of writing an institutional history of nursing education in Canada - Maisie Dobbs is a great inspiration in making me want to learn more.  While woman didn’t fight in the Great War, they did serve very near the front line as nurses, caring for the injured and dying who came back from the trenches.  Winspear spares her readers no detail in describing what life was like for Maisie at the casualty clearing station she was posted to in France.  This helps the reader understand the era, and Maisie’s character, which benefits the overall plot.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  I found it to be compelling and engaging in both plot and characters.  Winspear is definitely going on my list of author’s to watch out for in the future, and I hope that her Maisie series continues in the same vein as this first book did.

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1 comment:

  1. Great review. I read this one last year and really liked it. If you enjoyed this one I recommend you give Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mysteries a try -- Bess is a English nurse during WWI.