My grandmother didn’t have a lot of time for the women who handed out white feathers during the first world war. To her, it was a symbol not of cowardice but of bullying. She believed the distributors failed to take account the personal circumstances. Age, disability, mental fragility counted for nothing. Consequently, vulnerable men could be victimised.
My grandmother didn’t talk much about the war years. But what she told me about white feathers stayed with me through the years. So, when I spotted the title of Susan Lanigan’s novel, White Feathers, my interest was piqued.
White Feathers is the story of a young. independently-minded girl. Eva Downey born in the early 1900s. Her mother has died and her father is married to their former domestic servant. Consequently, Eva has found herself with a hostile stepmother. Escape becomes possible when an unexpected bequest from a suffragette provides for Eva to attend The Links, a boarding school for young women.
At school, Eva is impoverished and intellectual both of which attributes set her apart from most of her classmates however she forms a strong, lasting friendship with the rich and feisty Sybil — the liveliest and most likeable character in this novel.
Eva’s intellect attracts the attention of a teacher, Christopher Shandlin and she finds herself slowly falling in love. But back home, her jealous stepmother and stepsister Grace plot against her and when her natural sister Imelda becomes dangerously ill, Eva is forced to make a difficult choice between saving Imelda and betraying Christopher.
Christopher and Eva are not typical romantic characters. Their story contains uncomfortable and difficult elements.
Lanigan’s historical research is good. While character and pacing could be stronger in White Feathers the choices Eva faces could make for some interesting book club discussion.
White Feathers by Susan Lanigan is published by Brandon Press.
[Disclosure: A free copy was provided for the purpose of this review].
See also: The Lie by Helen Dunmore.