Book review: Sisters on Bread Street by Frances Brody

Sisters on Bread Street by Frances Brody
Sisters on Bread Street by Frances Brody

The Wood sisters… two branches of the same family and as tough and resilient as an oak tree.

Born and raised on Bread Street in a working class area of Leeds, teenagers Julia and Margaret Wood are battling devastating poverty but worse is yet to come… it’s 1914 and war is only months away.

Written as a 100th birthday tribute to her mother Julia McNeil, who lived on Bread Street until the age of eleven and was an avid reader, letter and diary writer, Frances Brody’s gritty and compelling story is based on Julia’s own childhood experiences.

Originally published as a Frances McNeil novel, Sisters on Bread Street brings to vivid life the tragedies and triumphs, delights and disasters of surviving hardship and wartime in the early part of the 20th century.

With the threat of war looming large over the city, 15-year-old Julia Wood and her 18-year-old sister Margaret are having to draw on their natural resources and resilience to keep their heads above water.

Their mother died a few years ago and her last words to her daughters were: ‘You’re the Wood sisters, strong as your name, strong as an oak.’

But life is particularly cruel for the Wood family… angry feelings about foreigners have reached boiling point and their German-Jewish father’s search for work proves hopeless, particularly after a bunch of local boys give him a beating on the street.

Entrepreneurial Julia – her quick wit has given her the nickname ‘Miss Repartee’ on the market stalls – is left to keep the family afloat by hawking home-made pies on the streets of Leeds.

Margaret, meanwhile, a girl with beauty that turns heads, is serving out an apprenticeship with a local milliner and has become an eager new member of the suffragette set.

Clever and resourceful, Margaret considers herself to be an ‘exceptional’ young woman and seeks a fast way out of the daily grind by pinning her hopes on marrying her rich suffragette friend’s handsome journalist son Thomas Turner.

But as the war rages on, it is left to Julia, who proves to be just as ‘exceptional’ as her sister, to discover the true meaning of courage and family as she holds on to the promise of a better life ahead.

Brody, author of the Kate Shackleton mysteries, has her finger firmly on the pulse of what it meant to be a young working class woman fighting poverty and prejudice in a tough city community during the First World War.

Her vibrant, authentic characters, from the enchanting Wood sisters to the cast of local shopkeepers, publicans and street hawkers, are all beautifully and sensitively drawn and speak loudly of the close community spirit that helped struggling families to survive in wartime.

Brimming with warmth, humanity, emotion, romance and drama, this is a story that will enchant, entertain and enlighten.

(Piatkus, paperback, £8.99)