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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.
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Fever at Dawn, by Peter Gardos.

It’s so rare that Hungarian or Polish or Estonian writers get translated into English that I’m always keeping an eye out for works from that portion of the continent. So when notice came up on NetGalley of this one, “translated from Hungarian,” I decided to take a chance. Even thought that meant my rule of avoiding fiction about the Holocaust.

But in a way, I haven’t broken my rule, because this book reads like the fictional overlay is so light as to be ephemeral; it’s based on the love letters exchanged between the author’s parents, found by him after his father’s death. He had never been told their story—a silence that I have discovered in meeting children of survivors that is not unusual at all.

It’s three weeks after the end of World War II, and Miklos, one of just over two hundred concentration camp survivors, is being shipped to Sweden for hospitalization. He’s a mess—no teeth, bashed in face, weighing about 64 pounds, and coughing up blood.

But when he gets to the hospital, he has written to the Swedish Office for Refugees, and obtains the names of 117 Hungarian young women whom various hospitals are trying to bring back to life.

Miklos has exquisite handwriting, and he sends letters to all 117 of them, because he wants to get married. And out of the few who write back to him, he decides that Lili is the one for him, and sets about trying to woo her by letter, while meanwhile dealing with the fact that the doctors give him six months to live and try to talk him out of it.

Eighteen-year-old Lili, in her hospital, is a bit of a pet of her doctor, who watches carefully over her; we find out later that she lay with hundreds of starved-to-death concentration camp victims when her camp was liberated. But the doctor happened to turn, happened to look, and caught the movement of her finger.

Now she has kidney problems, but she, too, ignores those as she befriends two young women who talk about love, men, and put together concerts for fellow women but which end up packed by male patients as well. One encourages her to answer the letter and look for romance, the other does with ambivalence—and is increasingly dismayed as the unlikely friendship develops, and does her best to torpedo it.

The story switches back and forth between the two, with excerpts from their letters. The form is somewhat choppy—the novel reads like a novelized screenplay, except the details are poignantly, sometimes painfully, often hilariously real. The voice is humorous, but the truth resonating from some of the details never lets the reader forget the horror of those relatively few years that shaped the rest of their lives, and had so strong an impact on their children. Like, Lili being excited to transfer to a new hospital, until she sees that it has a tall central smoke stack. Detials like that hit hard in the otherwise warm, vivid flow.

When Miklos gets on the train to meet Lili at last, one of the lenses of his glasses is broken, so he stuffs the frame with newspaper, never giving it a second thought.

I suspect that to get the full impact of many of the casually thrown away details the reader needs to be aware of how concentration camps were run, and after the war was over, the fact that there were some twenty million displaces persons in Europe, most of them with nothing left but the ragged clothes they stood up in. And how stressed the war-exhausted nations—like Sweden—were, yet still they managed to find ways to take in these broken people, nurse them to health, and try to find the remnants of their families and homes.

The details are sometimes hilariously haphazard, underscoring how, in spite of the excruciating mental, physical, emotional cost of their experience, there is still a strong yearning for hope, for life. These people want to live, like Miklos’s friend, who is worried that he can’t get an erection as he wants to find a woman; but there are limits. Another, lugubrious, man receives notice that his wife is alive after all, and the entire dormitory parades around singing to celebrate with him . . . but Miklos had heard witnesses say that she’d been shot down by SS guards, and he can’t bear to speak up.

Though Miklos and Lili, and their vividly evoked friends, are at the center, the backbone of the story is Rabbi Emil Kronheim, who travels endlessly, calling on Jews to help them if he can, or just to listen. There is a powerful conversation between Miklos and the Rabbi later in the book, about being Jewish and God; Miklos is an atheist and a communist (a very enthusiastic communist, which opens up another door into painful poignancy because we know what’s going to happen with respect to the Iron Curtain), and the Rabbi exhorts him not to turn away from his fellow Jews, God or no God. And he exerts himself on behalf of this couple.

Likewise, Lili had on her rescue thrown away her Jewish background and claimed a random Catholic name for her mother, which resulted in her being fostered by a Catholic family. Of course the Refugee office can’t find her mother under the false name . . . and therein is yet another short but powerful, poignant bit when Lili’s mother comes into the story.

To conclude, the book is not long, and its form is episodic, told in an often-tongue-in-cheek manner, but it has stayed with me in the several weeks since my reading. I particularly recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes.

June 2017

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