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By: Sara Rowell

Yvonne, Child of the Somme

Pages: 212 Ratings: 5.0
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Yvonne Millet was born into poverty in Paris during La Belle Époque, in the shadow of Notre-Dame cathedral. Taken to a childminder in the countryside a few days after birth, she became a ward of state at the age of three when her mother disappeared. A stable childhood in the beautiful Somme region of northern France was shattered when, aged fifteen, she was sent to work as a maid in a military town, during the First World War. Her devastating experiences would change her life and haunt her forever.


As a troubled young woman facing a precarious future, chance led Yvonne to marry a former British soldier. Hopes of fulfilment with a husband and family were marred by profound insecurities and the Second World War.


A moving, true account of one girl’s formative years in early 20th century France, Yvonne, Child of the Somme is also the story of thousands of children like her, who shared a similar fate. Most were too ashamed of their background ever to reveal their heart-rending stories. The echoes of their pain reverberated down the generations, unexplained.


‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’

Søren Kierkegaard, Danish Philosopher, 1813-55

Sara Rowell began writing thanks to a chance conversation with a friend, after a career in marketing and communications. She is fascinated by stories within ordinary families at extraordinary points in history, and how they can echo down the generations. A member of Solihull Writers (solihullwriters.co.uk), her writing includes historical biography and historical fiction. In 2020 she won the Solihull Writers non-fiction competition for her entry ‘Ah yes, the past has mystery’.

Customer Reviews
5.0
6 reviews
6 reviews
  • Lucy Connors

    Sara Rowell depicts the heart wrenching true story of Yvonne Millet, a French girl whose mother was forced to abandon her due to the abysmal living conditions for single working-class women. This is not a unique story, but it is a devastating and important one.
    Rowell’s investigation into Yvonne’s lost story, and the way of life her mother was forced into as a ‘domestique’ exposes the cruelty and desperation of poverty in early 20th century France and the trauma that resulted for so many. Rowell traces back through history, using censuses and archives to help untangle the mystery of Yvonne’s life. While it is clear just how much research has gone into this book, and how it has provided the framework around which Rowell has rebuilt and imagined Yvonne’s life, it does not feel like a history textbook. This is a compelling and engrossing read that carefully follows the strings of time and breathes life into a biography that was not even known to Yvonne’s family. Rowell shines a light on a sector of society that went unremarked on and untold, she writes ‘a tribute to all the children of early 20th century France whose lives were scarred by the poverty of their origins’. Yvonne lived and worked through both world wars, and Rowell investigates not only the roles she played in the war effort and the impact it had on the villages she lived in, but also how it opened the door for moments in which Yvonne and her eventual husband may have first met.

    Yvonne and her family end up in England and that is the reason for Rowell’s discovery of and undertaking of this book. The seed was sown in the form of a conversation with a friend – remarking on the mystery that encompassed her Grandma’s life and a desire to find out something about her French heritage. It was something she never spoke about, proving just how deeply Yvonne’s traumatic childhood impacted her adult family life. While not every mystery in Yvonne’s life can be deciphered, Rowell gives us a likely imagining or multiple possibilities for those moments still shrouded in darkness, painting a real picture of what life was, and might have been like, for Yvonne, her mother, and those around her. It also reminds us of the beauty of chance encounters, and how the smallest acts of kindness can drastically change a life.
    Yvonne, Child of the Somme uncovers not only Yvonne’s life story but the desperate stories of so many others who remain unseen. It is a thought provoking, page turning masterpiece, and an important read for any fans of historical fiction and biography.

  • Professor Elinor Accampo, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Southern California

    A labor of love, this book pries open the secrets of a remarkable woman whose past was once shrouded in mystery. The revelations are poignant not just for Yvonne’s many descendants, but for anyone curious about details of everyday life for abandoned children, particularly girls, as they came of age in the early twentieth century. Sara Rowell has conducted meticulous archival research to reconstruct Yvonne’s life as well as the lives of those who surrounded her—her disappeared mother, her caretakers, her employers, her friends, her husband. Where archives leave gaping silences, she delves deeply into the works of historians to provide a richly layered material and social context that walks us through the vibrant streets of cities, towns, and villages, and takes us inside welfare institutions, shops, markets, homes, and into the local catastrophes and trenches of the Great War. Most originally, she draws on this historical context in applying her own creative imagination to portray her subjects’ innermost sensibilities in a compassionate and compelling manner. This engaging account will appeal to readers interested in human survival, particularly in the case of impoverished, single women with no reproductive choices.

  • Dr Zoë Thomas, Associate Professor of Modern History, University of Birmingham

    ‘In this fascinating, highly readable, and extensively researched account of the life of Yvonne Millet, Sara Rowell brings alive the exceptional difficulties faced by working-class women in the first half of the twentieth century, trying to navigate work and family life against the backdrop of a world at war.’

  • Noella

    I found this a very engaging read and was impressed how Sara has captured the essence of Yvonne's life, particularly her experiences of living in France in the early 1900s. The story is made even more captivating by the factual references and photographs interwoven throughout the book. It is clear Sara has gone to great depths to research and present an intriguing real-life story and I can highly recommend it.

  • Julia Wilson

    Yvonne Child Of The Somme by Sara Rowell is a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.
    The reader becomes immersed into French life during the early part of the twentieth century. The author drops in on mother Marie’s life as a domestic servant in 1900 before following Yvonne’s life from 1901.
    Life for women in France at the turn of the century was hard. We learn that a third of all births in Paris in 1900 was to single mothers and yet there was no pressure on the fathers to claim responsibility. Females were at the mercy of males. Domestic servants were at risk of abuse from other male servants or their masters.
    The poor were seen as a problem for society that was ruled by the male elite. “The wealthy male elite… saw poor people not as individuals but as a … problem.” There was no poor relief and life was a lottery. Many women could not afford to keep their babies.
    Yvonne’s mother in her poverty eventually had to relinquish all rights to her daughter aged just three years old. Yvonne spent eleven years in and out of institutions until she was twenty years old.
    We hear about Yvonne’s World War I experiences too, as the Somme was at the heart of the war.
    Yvonne, despite marrying an Englishman and living in England for forty five years, she never learned to speak English.
    Sara Rowell writes in a very personable way, engaging the reader throughout Yvonne’s life. We are emotionally invested in her fortunes.
    Yvonne Child Of The Somme is a glimpse into life before, during and after two world wars. Changes are immense as the world enters the modern era.
    I thoroughly enjoyed Yvonne Child Of The Somme and can highly recommend this snapshot into a bygone era.
    I received a free copy from the publishers. A favourable review was not required. All opinions are my own.

  • Lesley Hughes

    Totally hooked from the first page as we follow in the footsteps of Yvonne from her birth to her later years. Being made a ward of the state at the age of three and then following her hard life as a domestic servant was so sad to read but I was totally drawn into the highs and lows that she went through. The description was so thorough I felt like I was witnessing the dreadful living conditions and how she managed to cope with daily life, she was an incredibly strong woman.
    The factual references and photograph along with the lifelong friendship that the author has with Jan, Yvonne's granddaughter make it more personable.

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