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Looking At The Moon - Margaret Thornton

I was 3 chapters into reading "Looking at the Moon" and already I was in love with the way the novel was shaping up.

The setting is a doctor's office in Blackpool (England) during the latter part of 1941. A young woman (Doreen Miller), agitated and worried about the condition of her little brother Tony (who is gravely ill with diptheria) is trying to get the attention of the appointments secretary (Abigail "Abbie" Winters) - who also happens to be the doctor's only child. This is near the end of a long day at the office and Doreen is insistent that Dr. Winters come and visit her family's home and check after Tony. "Abbie", on the threshold of 20, is sympathetic to Doreen's situation, but doesn't feel she can do much for her until her father has seen his last patient of the day, a rather well-to-do woman who has been impatiently awaiting her turn. Doreen, who hails from a large family who lives in the impoverished area of town, takes an instant dislike to Abbie, pegging her as a snooty, posh type disdainful of people from "the lower classes" like her. But the truth is that while Abbie may be "rich" in terms of material comforts and what most would take to be -- on the surface -- a secure, middle-class existence, she has no friends of her age, and lacks confidence and self-worth. (Her closest friend is her Aunt Bertha, a kindly and loving woman in her early seventies who lives with the Winters family and is the de facto cook and house servant.) That is in large part due to her mother, Eva, who has exerted tight control over Abbie all her life. Eva has an overbearing personality, shamelessly ingratiates herself with socially prominent people in Blackpool as a way of enhancing her own profile, and pretty much exerts full authority over the household, thanks in no small part to a largely acquiescent husband. So, while there is love between Abbie and her parents, it is rather austere and restrained.

Dr. Winters eventually is able to visit the Miller's house and treat Tony. But sadly, his treatments are not enough to stop the progress of the disease, and Tony dies. Dr. Winters is rather shaken up by this and, as the novel progresses, resolves to set up a separate practice in which he would offer treatment to the poorer members of the community (who would otherwise be unable to afford his services) in addition to his usual practice. In turn, Abbie -- who is also deeply sorrowful about Tony's passing --- goes to visit the Millers to offer her condolences and donate to them some of her clothes. Mr. and Mrs Miller, after chatting with Abbie at some length, are deeply impressed with her sincerity. Doreen, on the other hand, rudely ignores Abbie and retreats upstairs. Later Mrs. Miller insists on her eldest daughter going over to Dr. Winters' office to apologize to Abbie for her abrupt behavior. And therein begins -- slowly but surely --- a budding, enduring friendship between the 2 women.

Doreen proves to be a positive influence on Abbie, helping her come out of her shell by introducing her to the joys of dancing at the Palace ballroom. Eva is none-too-pleased with Abbie's friend. But Dr. Winters begins to exert himself a bit with his wife, recognizing how much more lively and happier Abbie is. He has no problem with Abbie and Doreen going out to the ballroom.  And so, one Saturday night, while with Doreen in the ballroom, Abbie makes the acquaintance of Peter Horsfall, a Royal Air Force (RAF) airman, who asks her for a dance -- and later a date. They managed to spend some time together. Their friendship deepens into something that shows the signs of love. But when Abbie is a few minutes late because of an unexpected problem she experienced at the ballroom, her mother forbades her to see Peter again, regarding him as not good enough for her daughter.

Eva then sets her sights on destroying Abbie's friendship with Doreen. But is frustrated when Abbie (now 20 and eligible to be conscripted for wartime service) and Doreen join the Land Army in the spring of 1942. For Abbie, this offers the ideal escape from the oppressive, smothering influence of her mother.

This is a novel that tugs at the heartstrings, but not excessively so. It strikes the right balance. I enjoyed learning about how the Land Army worked in Britain during the Second World War in helping to maintain harvesting, farm maintenance, and growing of crops in the countryside, given that most of the national manpower was in the military and a number of occupations on the home front deemed "essential war work."

After a year's service, Abbie, by sheer chance, finds Peter again at a dance at a nearby airfield (playing piano in a small jazz/swing band) where he is stationed. They become reacquainted and this time, love grows and deepens between them. I confess at this point to wanting a happy ending to develop. But with the war raging, there is no certainty that Peter will survive his combat tour. He, a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, has recurrent dreams of being shot down in flames over Germany, either by flak or a Luftwaffe night fighter. Fire is the constant, overriding fear with most RAF bomber crews. This is something that Peter tries not to talk too much about with Abbie when they can find time to spend together. Abbie and Peter later travel to Blackpool on weekend leave, where Peter goes to ask the Winters for their daughter's hand in marriage. I won't say how that turns out. But there are a number of twists and turns in subsequent chapters that will have the reader gasping, anxious to see what ensues. In terms of surprise and suspense, "LOOKING AT THE MOON" does not disappoint.