The Soldier’s Wife
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Ruby and Jimmy had a whirlwind courtship and swift marriage and now Jimmy is being shipped out to aid in the fight in the Great War. He’s being sent to Gallipoli and because of this, Ruby’s life must change. More and more women are getting jobs and although Ruby could go home to her family, that doesn’t interest her. She’s been keeping the books for her family business so she thinks she has skills to offer in Sydney. She gets a position at a lumber yard, managing to win over the owner even though some of the other employees regard her with suspicion. A women’s place is not at work.
Ruby’s world gets even more complicated when her boss suffers a devastating loss in the war and retreats into himself, neglecting the business. Ruby is the only person who will go to the house and speak to him, the other men in the yard saying it’s not their place. Only with a combination of gently coaxing and occasionally, verbally bullying him can she get the information she needs to keep the men paid and the mill running. There are some things Ruby can’t do though and bit by bit, she gets the boss back to work, although there are frequent setbacks.
All the while this is happening, Ruby is terrified for Jimmy. The stories coming out of Gallipoli are horrific, with heavy losses. Finally she gets word that he is being returned to her, having sustained an injury and needing recuperation. Ruby is ecstatic only when Jimmy is discharged from hospital she realises exactly what he expects. Jimmy doesn’t want her working anymore, although with his injury and war pension, they desperately need the money. And Jimmy is…changed by his experience with the war. And if the two of them are to find the happiness they experienced before he left, it’s going to take heartache and sacrifice.
This is the third or fourth book around Gallipoli that I have read in recent times, with a number of them being timed for the 100th anniversary of the landing this year. This one doesn’t give action from the location but instead focuses on Ruby, a young war wife in Sydney who is attempting to make ends meet whilst her husband is away fighting. Ruby gets a job in what is definitely a “man’s world” – a timber mill yard where at her interview she’s basically told that the conveniences are in no condition for a lady and she must go home at lunch if she needs to use one. Ruby figures out exactly how much tea she can drink at breakfast without feeling like she’s going to burst by lunch!
Reading this 100 years after it’s set, you realise just how much things have changed in terms of what women could and couldn’t do. Ruby faces scorn and ire from some men, who clearly believe her place is at home or in a kitchen somewhere. Even people who don’t work at the mill judge her for taking a job away from a man – but the thing is, there aren’t any men. They’re away fighting, or training to be sent away. And if they are still here, such as one or two that work at the mill, then people wonder why they’re not doing their duty even though the mill is by supplying timber for the war bases and camps. At times it was difficult to read some people’s attitudes towards women and Ruby in particular without wanting to grit my teeth. Ruby has to take so many things into consideration, such as the clothes she wears….skirts need to be a certain length but she also needs to be able to climb stairs. And she’s a woman working alone with many men – this brings problems as well, which she experiences early in her employment.
Ruby is lucky in that Jimmy is returned to her (mostly) in one piece after an injury and illness. But mentally, he is changed from his experience and he has horrific nightmares, including one where he attacks Ruby when she attempts to help him. Ruby also doesn’t want to give up her job and not just because they need the money but also because she has come to feel responsible for the owner and getting him to function each day as well as feeling comfortable and competent in her role and the independence she has achieved from being able to go to work. It is the cause of much tension between her and Jimmy and makes their reunion probably less than both of them imagined.
I think this book is a very interesting exploration of several war themes, such as the forced changing of roles for women and the impact on society as a greater whole as men are also forced to readjust their perceptions and accept the new roles that women are playing, whether they like it or not. For every man like Ruby’s boss, who is willing to give her a go if she can do the work, there are probably 4-5 that disapprove and make no secret of it. Ruby has a remarkable ability to be able to shrug this off and set aside her fears and insecurities. I quite enjoyed her as a character.
I tried to make lots of excuses for Jimmy when he returned. Post-traumatic stress disorder, even though it wasn’t even a recognised thing in this time, would’ve been rampant. He’s facing disability and perhaps not being able to provide for his wife and future family. He also has been away and has come back to a different world than the one he left, one where his wife is the breadwinner and works with other men. It’s obviously something that is difficult for him to adjust to. But there are times when Jimmy is thoughtlessly and needlessly cruel, especially about something rather traumatic which made me rather cranky at him. He also wants Ruby to sacrifice something that she’s good at but doesn’t seem to want to sacrifice anything himself. I’m not sure his actions towards the end credited him in much good light but it seemed to be enough for Ruby to realise what she wanted and what she was prepared to do to have it.
Book #86 of 2015
The Soldier’s Wife is book #34 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015