Dress Down Sunday: Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

published 2013 set in 1940, so one of our WW2 books


Burning Summer 2

A small package landed on Peggy’s lap, flat, light, and wrapped in tissue paper.

‘You might as well have them. My figure hasn’t been the same since Claudie,’ said June, her own hands encircling her still slender waist. ‘Don’t suppose I’ll ever get them on again, I’ll make myself some bigger ones as soon as I can get my hands on some more silk.’

Knickers. Two pairs of swirling gossamer knickers – handstitched, cream-coloured, as French as you like – beautifully ironed and giving off the faint, prickling scent of mothballs.

‘Oh, June… can I… do you really...?’ Peggy held their softness to her face, and couldn’t believe her luck.

‘Have them…they’re a piece of cake to make, as a matter of fact. Look…. It’s just a big circle really, with another cut out from the middle. That’s how you get that nice floaty effect. On the bias. I’ll teach you that too, if you like.’

Peggy gave June a huge kiss, and she laughed again.

‘It’s just a couple of pairs of knickers… hardly the crown jewels! But I’m glad you like ‘em.’

‘Oh I do. I really do. I can’t wait to try them on.’

She couldn’t believe her luck, on every front. It had to be a good omen, didn’t it?

Burning summer

observations: I never really know what defines a Young Adult (YA) novel: that’s the category for this book, but it seems to me it is just a historical novel, good for everyone, and very interesting. It has a very specific setting in time and place: Romney Marshes in 1940. The UK lives in terror of an invasion by the German Army, and this is one of the coastal areas most likely to be a landing-place. Syson does a terrific job in making this very tense and scarey, given that we know it never happened: she really does make you think about the possibilities, and it’s a most sympathetic picture of how people felt.

Heroine Peggy is 16, and she and her mother and younger brother have moved in with an aunt and uncle on a farm. There is some mystery about where her father is. They work hard on the farm, and try to be good lodgers. But then a plane comes down in the Marshes, and Peggy finds the young Polish pilot Henrik, and for complicated reasons decides to help him hide – even though he is an RAF pilot, ‘on the right side’. As the summer wears on, she is sure she is falling in love with him. But everything seems hopeless….

The details of life seem truly authentic, they have the ring of conviction, and the book is very well-written. My only complaint would be that there aren’t enough light-hearted moments like the one above – and like the moment where Aunt Myra is revealed as sitting in the cellar during air-raids with a preserving pan on her head for protection. The subject matter is serious and sombre, but I could have done with more light relief. And although the final epilogue is satisfying in many ways, I thought some of the characters and situations were left unresolved, I’d have liked more information. But then that’s a tribute to the book’s ability to involve the reader.

The WW2 airfields on the East Coast also featured in Ellie Griffiths The Ghost Fields.

I was intrigued by the idea of the circular knickers, and couldn’t really imagine them: luckily, researching them brought me to the website Sew Vera Venus, which I highly recommend. Proprietor Jeanne gives detailed instructions on how exactly to make French knickers with this particular method – but that isn’t the half of it. Her website is full of the most beautiful clothes, vintage-style but designed and made by her, including a lot more amazing lingerie. Anyone with any interest in clothes should go over there straightaway – if you only look at one thing today make it this gallery. I guarantee you will be knocked out - after browsing her site I felt even more sorry than normal that I can’t sew at all – there are patterns and instructions for many of the items.

Jeanne kindly gave me permission to use the photos above.


  1. I love the sense of time and place in this one, Moira! And I can easily see how it might have a very dark feel about it, given how scary it all was. Interesting you mention the whole YA thing, too. I sometimes think the distinction between what 'counts' as YA and what doesn't is blurred...

    1. Yes Margot - I guess it is helpful to an extent for school libraries and young readers, but I wonder if the rest of the world misses out. And this was definitely a very talented writer who should be more widely-read.

  2. The book sounds interesting, and I do like the camiknickers - they sound a bit more elaborate than the picture and instructions I found in my old needlework book when I read Margery Sharp's The Nutmeg Tree.

    1. Oh I love the Nutmeg Tree, and she does go into some detail about her underwear doesn't she?

  3. Now I finally understand knickers. I did sew once upon a time. I did a lot of sewing in my twenties, which amazes me now. Less and less as I got older.

    1. I was just always very clumsy and awkward with needle or sewing machine, though full of admiration for anyone who could do it. I never could do art either.

  4. A tripart answer is needed her:
    A. I have never seen garments like this in my long life -- very interesting, especially the bottom attire. What does one wear it with? A skirt or dress?
    B. I cannot sew worth a darn. I can hem pants and sew buttons; that's it. My sister, on the other hand, made her own beautiful dresses throughout high school, with empire waists, tucks and darts! Go figure.
    C. Do you know pettypants? A slip sort of with legs. I had to wear them under my skirt in high school. Full disclosure years later: One day I stepped off the bus a block from the school, and the garment just fell off and hit the ground. I looked down, stepped out of them and kept walking, never looking behind. That was the last of those things. Liberation.

    1. It's underwear, and I guess would usually be under skirt or dress, with stockings and garter belt underneath. I think it was quite widespread in the 1940s. The fashion was revived when I was a young woman, and you can still get them in fancy lingerie shops.
      I can't sew either - like you, buttons and hems only.
      No, haven't come across pettypants - I need to find a book with them in!

  5. I remember garter belts! Panty hose was such an improvement although I gave them up, too.

    In a novel entitled "Southland," by Nina Revoyr, there is a wonderful Japanese character. He talks about the bad treatment of Japanese men in the U.S. military who were often housed underneath German POW's on ships and often put in the most dangerous positions in WWII.

    And he says many returned to the U.S. to find that their families had been interned or bigoted graffiti was written on their homes.

    A lot of sympathy for them in "Southland." The author has Japanese ancestors.

    1. Thanks Kathy - until I read the Hotel book I had only read the Guterson book about the Japanese experience - thanks for pointing out some more.

  6. Also, Nina Revoyr's book "The Age of Dreaming," is about Japanese actor in Hollywood who is successful until suddenly discriminatory laws and practices are used to block his employment. This is a lovely book in terms of the writing.

    Revoyr also wrote "Wingshooters," about racial relations in a small Midwestern town. The parent of a main character is Japanese. Her website compares it to "Snow Falling on Cedars." I haven't read this one although I should. (sigh)

    1. Thanks - she's not an author I know so I must investigate. There are too many books Kathy!

  7. I know: I call my list now "the list that shall not be named."

    I have to put on blinders to read blogs and book websites and book "best of" lists and awards' lists.


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