A hidden gem, Prabhleen Notra
Wrens Under the Radar
November 22, 2021
“Should I be enjoying myself when soldiers were still fighting for our freedom overseas?”
September of 1939. New Zealand joins the war against Germany, and many enlist to help in the battle. One such person includes Betty’s fiancé, Fred. Betty understands Fred wants to do his part for his country and she endeavours to do the same, however possible. Thus, she joins the Wrens, a female auxiliary unit that helps aboard ships. Not long after, she’s on route to a farmhouse in Blenheim, with her and seven other Wrens being whisked away for a top-secret mission.
The Wrens — all awkward at first — quickly find themselves becoming close to one another as they come to terms with their new positions as interferences for Japanese submarines: taking what information they could, as telegraphers and classifiers, before handing it off to Naval Intelligence in Wellington. All eight women shroud themselves in secrecy in front of others, yet do what they can to blend in.
Not too soon after settling in, Betty and some of the other Wrens struggle with news of the deaths of cherished people, the loss a gateway to vulnerability. Yet, with each other’s help, they learn to mourn and overcome those emotions, not letting them redefine who they are.
Wrens Under the Radar by Colleen Shipley is an insightful tale based on true accounts from eight Wrens who were sworn to secrecy during the war. It is a story that deals with themes of loss, healing, and companionship in a way that entices readers without even realising.
“The Joan I knew was strong, gentle and capable . . . Now I saw that underneath, she was as vulnerable as the rest of us.”
Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of true-story retellings. I don’t mind reading them and they are quite good, I’m just someone who dislikes seeing adaptations to stories people told and how the two differ. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with Wrens Under the Radar and how it wrote about the war in a different perspective than I’m used to.
Whenever I see war stories, more often than not they are filled to the brim with the main characters’ life in war with battles and fights being very common. Wrens Under the Radar takes to internalising the effects of war rather than externalising them, and I found it to be very revitalising. The only real part I didn’t like was the slow beginning and that Betty’s fiancé’s mother didn’t seem to have that much depth considering she was a catalyst for Betty’s more saddening thoughts.
Putting aside that one character, I found the Wrens themselves to be very unique. Each and every Wren felt realistic as they were all different in their characteristics, yet had quirks in common that allowed them to get along. Whenever difficulty and heartache arose, their difference in personalities really showed, with their responses being unique to them and different to how another viewed it. I found it to be a nice touch when the Wrens didn’t get along in every scenario; I thought it was very authentic to show them arguing or disagreeing with each other. The character growth was also immense in every character as we see their thoughts and actions progress through Betty’s eyes. The despair they felt turned into learning opportunities and didn’t cause them to harden up and I loved it! Especially the unconditional support every Wren gave each other.
I recommend Wrens Under the Radar to anyone interested in history and war. This novel gives insight into a different perspective on how people can be impacted by large-scale battles; so as long as that is something people are willing to look at, this would be a great read!
All in all, Shipley has written a historical masterpiece: a hidden gem. I’ve never read a story where the action of war is internalised, but I think this is a great example of one. It deals with the prospect of loss in a way that can really evoke emotion from the reader. The relationships and dynamics are incredibly realistic, remaining true to what happens in war and life. I’m glad such details and truths weren’t concealed. Overall, Shipley has created a war tale I’ll never forget.
“She’d done an amazing job of keeping her secret, but then we were all good at that.”
- Prabhleen is 14 years old and lives in Hamilton.