May. 9th, 2017

sartorias: (Default)
Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence

I know that predictions can be hit or miss—they certainly are with me—but sometimes you’ve got to throw one out there, because you feel so passionately that a book deserves wider attention than it’s getting.

I feel that way about Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence. What it has in common with Code Name Verity and the BBC serial The Bletchley Circle is a story featuring the sort of smart women who really did contribute to winning WW II, but whose work largely went unsung partly for social reasons and partly because their work was heavily classified for the next half-century.

Of course there’s going to be a certain element of modern outlook mixed with that of women born right around the time WW I ended. Code Name Verity is probably the most contemporary of them, with its bitter cynicism and its implied approval setting up its shocker. The TV serial I think got closer to depicting women of the time, but I believe that Florence comes closest to the voices of the women whose memoirs and collected letters I’ve read from that time. But it’s not just the period sensibility that made this a standout, it’s that rare quality of grace in dealing with that most horrible of human endeavors: mass warfare.

The novel begins with an extremely tense moment as female air wardens wait at an isolated air field for reconnaissance fliers to return. The weather over England has just taken an abrupt turn toward ice storm, which is bad news for airplanes . . .

And then our first-person narrator, Rose Jolliffe, is a young Canadian woman living in a tiny prairie town called Touchwood. It’s 1939, and she works assisting a foul-mouthed, snuff-taking veteran named MacTavish, who loathes the British officer corps and thinks Canada is well out of any more wars.

But Rose, as well as most of the other young people in her town, yearn to do their bit. Rose is mostly motivated by a strong wish to get out of tiny, boring Touchwood, away from farming. The first sign she gets that war is not glamorous is watching the faces of the young men going away to be trained—and their anxious parents, who all recollect WW I. The second sign happens comes when the local area is used for pilot training, but she is determined. She signs up for the women’s auxiliary service, knowing that the most they will be doing is scrubbing, laundry, and tea service—however her training with MacTavish’s printing press lifts her out of the regular run.

Before long she finds herself in England, at a newish estate at Medmenham (which amused me, as it was the site of Sir Francis Dashwood’s wannabe devil worshippers two hundred years before almost to the year, that that is not acknowledged in the book), scrutinizing photographs taken by reconnaissance planes for camouflaged artillery emplacements and munitions factories.

She also sees the results of bombings, which includes the collateral damage: cows and pigs, horses and dogs, and the broken bits of civilians. Florence depicts so vividly the toll Rose and her colleagues their work extracts from them, all in various ways. The characters are varied, the female friendships strong. Rose tumbles into love, or what she thinks is love, as she keeps working around the clock to impress her handsome boss.

The grimness of the war is punctuated by letters going back and forth from home: her parents, her best friend, and her neighbor Charlie Stewart all write, each with distinct voices.

The anxiety as younger brothers volunteer jacks up the tension, especially when the inside details of missions are revealed to the photographers. The suave words of newspapers can’t hide what the remorseless camera eye reveals.

The climactic sequence is a real emotional roller coaster, but Florence writes with grace as well as compassion, and here and there, when needed, just enough of a touch of humor. It’s this insight and grace that made the story so memorable for me—that, and her unerring ear for the idiom of the time, not only Canadian but British from various levels of society.

To wind up, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.
sartorias: (JRRT)
For many of us, the last lines of the Fellowship made us desperate to follow Frodo, but the opening of The Two Towers plunges the reader in Aragorn’s path as he races to the rescue. With the death of Boromir, the focus has shifted firmly to the broken Company.

Then, just as Pippin and Gandalf are heading off, we switch back to Frodo and Sam. It’s a cold shift, calling for a mental readjustment. Over the years, I’ve talked to many who admitted to skipping either book three entirely to follow Frodo, or the reverse. I remember how hard it was to read in order, and yet when I sit back and think on the structure, I believe this is a good spot to switch the narrative over. The arc beginning with the capture of the hobbits and the rescue that led to Rohan and thence to Isengard is a whole.

The focus of the company is going to shift southward for what amounts to the Great Distraction. Aragorn and his doughty heroes, desperate and wonderful as they are, still are a decoy from the most important element of the plan: the Ringbearer.

When I was a young reader, I loathed Gollum, and hoped that Sam would strangle him ASAP. When it turned out he didn’t, for a long time afterward, on my rereads, I skimmed a lot of the Gollum bits.

But in the last reread or so, I’ve come around to a very different view. In some ways, Gollum, and not Frodo, is the true center of the book, in that Gollum embodies the human struggle between evil and good. The balance between Smeagol and Gollum is so very important not just to the quest, but thematically.

One of the pleasures of reading so slowly is the awareness of the relationship between Frodo and Sam. There is the implied hierarchy in Mr. Frodo and Sam, the latter carrying the cooking gear, and quoting his Gaffer, the former making decisions—then the both of them arguing back and forth freely as they slip and slide over the treacherous rocks. When Sam finally remembers the elven rope (“You’re nowt but a ninnyhammer, Sam Gamgee: that’s what the Gaffer said to me often enough”) they banter about it.

Little, vivid moments delineate them as much as their distinctive voices. When Gollum begins to shadow them (Sam loathing his nasty flappy feet), and then catches up, after a fight, it’s going back for Sam until Frodo pulls sting.

Gollum promptly collapses “as loose as wet string.”

Frodo is poised to make a life and death decision, and remembers Gandalf’s words from their first conversation about the ring: ”Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

I’ve heard that quote excoriated over the years, by those who despise LOTR. It’s that implied greater justice that they balk at. Justice and mercy, such slippery concepts.

Frodo calls on Smeagol for a promise—he has to swear on the ring, which Frodo knows Gollum wants to see and touch, “though it will drive you mad”—and Gollum gives it amid much weeping.

Reluctantly Sam removes the rope, At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master has patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement . . .

Aside from the stomach-turning reflection that JRRT had witnessed the result of much mistreatment of dogs (“cur”), I wonder where or how he was inspired to envision Gollum. The PTSD behavior might be extrapolated from said abused dogs, but what about the direct speech instead of to the precious?

Anyway, the three characters are unnervingly vivid here, the balance between them shifting page by page, paragraph by paragraph sometimes, as the need for sleep engenders worry about whether or not Gollum will betray them, and how.

Gollum shifts identities back and forth, even when he cannot eat lembas, and goes off to find his own food, something Frodo and Sam try not to think about too hard.

Sam forgives Frodo for falling asleep on his watch, and they talk a little, Sam wondering how long Frodo thinks it will take to do the job. He reckons they have enough food for three weeks.

Frodo’s answer is heartbreaking: ”But Samwise Gamgee—my dear hobbit—indeed, Sam, my dearest hobbit, friend of friends—I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that.”

After that, the balance of power shifts: they are wholly in the hands of Gollum as he leads them into the fens, and then the Dead Marshes.

Much has been said about the faces under the water, and how the horrors of the trenches must have engraved this image on JRRT’s memory: ally and foe lying together under the water, their features still young.

In the story, they have been there for centuries, “Before the precious came,” Gollum says. He adds that no one can touch them, though he tried. Sam is revolted: he knows why Gollum tried to touch them.

Anyway, the connection works both ways: I think of WW I memoirs when I read this, but when I read something from the WW I era, I think of this portion of LOTR.

It is this chapter, I think, and the ones after that forked many fantasy writers off into mimicking the surface without thinking too deeply: how many fantasies featured evil guys brooding over a ruined land somewhere in the east of the author’s paracosm, evil kings and wizards ruling over ruined evil lands because that’s what evil guys do, until doughty heroes can smite them?

Anyway, they travel by moonlight, which Frodo and Sam at first welcome, though Gollum is terrified, and sure enough, a ringwraith flies overhead on a scouting run, laying down a concussion of terror in all directions.

After that, Sam notices a change in Gollum, a sneaky, speculative glance, as they push on. When the sun comes up, The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness—little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.

Sam lies doggo, watching Gollum argue with himself, as if he were two people. When he sees Gollum winning over Smeagol, he fakes wakening.

Frodo is kind to Gollum, telling him that he led faithfully—but there’s a third scouting run by a ringwraith, and Gollum is sure they are toast. He “rose with a snarl, and went before them like a beaten dog.”

Those images always make me wince.

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