The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Books about war tend to focus on battles and those who were in the thick of fighting them. Kate Thompson’s novel The Little Wartime Library is therefore refreshing because it focuses on those who are left at home trying to live their lives as best they can. In this case, it is the community living at Bethnal Green in London during World War II.

Thompson’s protagonist, Clara Button, has created in the disused Bethnal Green Tube Station a public library for the local residents, many of whom are now living and sleeping at the station because it is the safest place to be when the German bombing raids occur, often on a daily basis.

Clara and her assistant and best friend, Ruby Munroe, work hard to make the library the centre of community life in the makeshift world of the underground haven. It is not smooth sailing for them since they are both working their way through the grief of losing loved ones and friends because of the war. Clara’s husband, Duncan, has died four years before while fighting at Dunkirk while Ruby’s sister Bella was crushed to death when a panicked crowd of people tried to enter the Tube Station seeking shelter.

Clara and Ruby aren’t the only ones seeking solace during this extraordinary time. Each of those who come to the library has a story to tell and a need to find some means of escaping the privations that have been forced upon them. Reading becomes a means of transporting their minds away from the issues they must face each day. As the war continues and the bombs keep falling, the library becomes more than a sanctuary. It is the place when they can forget about the bleak world outside even if it is only for a few minutes or hours.

Along the way, societal issues rear their heads such as domestic and family violence, heavy alcohol consumption and whether women can have a fulfilling career rather than be just a placeholder until the men return from the front. Thompson does not hold back about these and other dark issues that are magnified because of the situation of having over five thousand people sheltering cheek to jowl in a confined place. The way in which everyone navigates these issues holds the reader’s attention throughout the book.

During her research for this novel, Thompson interviewed well over one hundred librarians throughout the United Kingdom about the place of libraries in society and the ways they have changed to meet the challenges of the day including the Covid-19 pandemic. Quotes from some of those interviewed are found at the beginning of each chapter. I found them as interesting as the plot that was slowly being revealed as I read the book.

Though The Little Wartime Library is not the type of novel I would normally explore, I did enjoy it. I also became angry at times because of the ways in which women were treated by some of the male characters. They were typical for the era but Thompson, by highlighting them, issues the challenge of the continued need for change in the twenty-first century. The book also reminds us in this pandemic age that when wars and health crises finally end the world has changed and things can never be the same again. There are new paths to tread and interesting places to explore.

Kate Thompson is an award-winning journalist, ghost-writer and novelist who has spent the past two decades in the UK mass market and book publishing industry. Over the past seven years Kate has written nine fiction and non-fiction titles, three of which have made the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list.

The Little Wartime Library

Kate Thompson


Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN 978 152939 5402 2

$32.99; 480pp



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