THE VICTORY GARDEN by Rhys Bowen brings to life women’s roles during World War I.  As with her other historical novels she beautifully blends in historical facts, likeable characters, and a mystery.

Emily Bryce meets Australian pilot Robbie Kerr while she volunteers to pass out cookies to those wounded in battle.  She is not allowed to sit and talk to the young men or write letters for them, and can only serve buns from silver trays with crystal tongs. It is against the rules to talk to the men other than pleasantries.  But Kerr has other ideas and as an Australian he is willing break the rules. As he gets to know Emily he encourages her to become more independent. They start to become very close and after he is transferred to another hospital, she decides to disobey her parents, and join the Women’s Land Army to do something to help the home front and feel worthwhile. The extra bonus is that she will be close to Robbie until he is called upon to fight again. Knowing that pilots in that era had only a life expectancy of six weeks the mystery becomes whether Robbie will ever return.  Meanwhile one of Emily’s assignments is tending to the neglected grounds of a large Devonshire estate. It’s here that Emily discovers the long-forgotten journals of a medicine woman who devoted her life to her herbal garden. Emily now has a profession of sorts as well. 

Interestingly, the contrast between women at the home front versus women on the warfront shows how society was changing. Many women have taken jobs once denied to them, replacing the men fighting. Clarissa Hamilton is an example of an aristocrat who had taken on a very intense job, becoming a nurse and directly tending to those wounded on the battlefront. Emily, living in England, had to wait until she turned twenty-one because during that era parents controlled their children.  But once that age, Emily contributes in her own way to the war effort.

This story is informative and readers take a journey with Emily. They see her grow from someone solely dependent on her parents both financially and emotionally to a headstrong woman who is determined to make a life of her own.

Elise Cooper:  Why the herbal importance to the story?

Rhys Bowen: I came across a book at a used book store on herbal remedies, that even had quotes from the 1600s.  I was fascinated and thought what if someone had an herbal garden? I also have a friend in London who is a docent at the famous garden founded in the 1400s. When I visited there, I found out it has all medicinal plants and a complete garden of poisonous plants.  I thought about how I wanted to write a story about someone who can heal herself through her herbal garden. 

EC:  What is the significance of the Women’s Land Army?

RB:  In England, the War literally wiped out a whole generation.  I thought if the men were off fighting who would become the blacksmiths, carpenters, and gardeners?  Of course, it was the women who stepped up.  Women showed they could do tasks people thought beyond them.  They came through beautifully.  After the war, because ten million young men died, many of the women remained in jobs because the men were not coming home.  It was shortly after WWI that women in England were given the vote. 

EC:  Clarissa represents an aristocratic woman that went to the warfront?

RB:  She came from an upper-class background.  As the war went on women who were nurses showed their worth.  They were amazing.  Some did end up in hospitals in England.  Because they knew so much from their battle experiences they actually raised the level of hygiene in hospitals.

EC:  The Women’s Land Army also showed women to be more independent?

RB:  They wore bloomers, boots, and army jackets.  They threw away their corsets and cut their hair.  They wanted to show women were no longer subservient. Also, class barriers broke down for those women in the WLA.  Normally, people Emily worked with would not have been those she associated with.  Yet, the cockney girl, those raised on farms, and Emily, a middle-class girl, all became friends and had incredible support for each other. 

EC:  A pilot’s life expectancy was six weeks?

RB:  Yes.  Just fifteen years before, the Wright Brothers invented the plane.  It was basically paper and had fabric wings, tied together with wire.  There was a high rise of crashing, not to mention the dog fights of the pilots.  Remember the Red Baron was during this era. 

EC:  How would you describe Robbie?

RB:  He is a typical Australian.  Cocky, aggressive, with an attitude, but in a good way.  He is plucky and wants to make the most out of life.  I lived in Australia for a year and my brother still lives there.  They do not accept the conventional rules.

EC:  How would you describe Emily?

RB:  Spunky, loyal, wants to be independent but at the same time a dutiful daughter.  She mirrored the life of the person in the diary.  She is waiting to find out what life is made of.  After her brother is killed in the war Emily wants to do something meaningful. She wanted to make her own mark, but her parents became over protective.  Once she met Robbie she gained confidence and with that independence.

EC:  How would you describe Emily’s mother?

RB:  A social climber who wanted Emily to marry someone with a title.  Those who made a good match for their children would get a status in life.  She is shallow, overbearing, manipulative, spiteful, angry, and frustrated, especially after losing her son, the sunshine of her life. 

EC:  Please explain this quote, “I feel it wrong to hold a big celebration when the country is still at war and so many people are suffering.”

RB:  Emily was explaining to her mother why it might not be such a great idea to have a huge 21st birthday party for her.  It is quite understandable there was so much PTSD.  Those boys living in England got on a boat and crossed the Channel for an hour.  Then they were in hell, knee-deep in the muddy trenches surrounded by rats.  They had to endure grenades and rockets firing on them. 

EC:  Your next book?

RB:  It will be about one of Queen Victoria’s cooks and the time they spend together while on the Riviera.  I was in Nice a few years ago and saw a huge building that was originally a hotel built for the Queen during her final years.