1942, book review, characters of convenience, drawbacks to first-person narration, feminism, historical atmosphere, historical fiction, independence, mystery, North African invasion, OSS, Sarah B. Shaber, Washington, women workers, World War II
Review: Louise’s War, by Sarah B. Shaber
Severn, 2011. 194 pp. $28
American involvement in World War II is six months old, and everybody and her sister flocks to the nation’s capital to find a job. Louise Pearlie, whose husband has died years before and can’t bear to remain in rural North Carolina, has brought her excellent secretarial skills and work experience to the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence organization. Gossip has it that the Allies will invade North Africa within months, hence the OSS search for maps of the coastline and experts who understand the beaches.
One such authority is Gerald Bloch, a French Jew married to a school friend of Louise’s. From what little news she’s received, Louise gathers that Gerald and Rachel are stuck in Marseilles, while reports say that the Vichy government has made sure that no Jews will receive exit visas. Deportation looms, and Louise, who owes Rachel a huge debt, wishes she could help.
Theoretically, the OSS could claim that Gerald Bloch would provide necessary information concerning the upcoming invasion. But the file on him goes missing during the confusion ensuing from the fatal heart attack suffered by the director of Louise’s section. At first, she thinks nothing of this, but soon, at tremendous risk, she sets out to discover how and why a sensitive dossier could simply vanish, and whether recovering it would save the Blochs.
It’s an excellent premise, if a mite dependent on coincidence, but Shaber’s narrative has a lot going for it. For starters, I like how she’s drawn Louise. Growing up poor and churchy, Louise doesn’t quite know what to make of the big city, where old values get shunted aside in the business of making war. The tremendous crush of people in a hurry and under pressure, with ambition and money to spend, offers temptations she’s not used to, but which attract her. Her parents want her to remarry, but she enjoys her independence, even if she wonders what it would feel like to have the financial security and creature comforts she’d never afford on her own.
That said, Louise also knows that many, if not most, men expect women to keep quiet and use their brains only to help solve male problems, for which, of course, they’ll receive no credit. But her common sense doesn’t prevent her from wanting what might not be good for her. I like that complexity.
The other winning facet of Louise’s War is the atmosphere. Whether it’s fabric shortages, the bus company’s refusal to hire Black drivers, people trying to get around the sugar ration, or the habit of traveling GIs tossing letters out train windows, knowing that someone will stamp and mail them, Shaber knows her ground and deploys details with skill. Here, Louise rolls her eyes at the portrayal of women in a popular magazine:
In its cheerful stories women skipped off to work in full make-up with neatly coiffed hair pulled back in colorful do-rags, carrying lunch pails full of healthy home-made food. Their overalls didn’t get dirty no matter how filthy the job. If they weren’t married with an obliging mother at home caring for their children, they were engaged to a shop foreman or a military officer. None of them were war widows or lived in boarding houses or had to park their children in crowded day nurseries.
Given that keen eye and grasp of psychology, I’m surprised to stumble across a cardinal error. Louise’s first-person narration works just fine, but, for some reason, Shaber shoehorns brief, usually first-person, sections belonging to minor characters, ostensibly to reveal information Louise couldn’t know. Since these look as clumsy as they sound, you have to ask, Does the reader need to know? I doubt it.
Pretty much everything would have kept until Louise manages to discover it, and her ignorance could have heightened the tension, complicating her attempts to parse conflicting evidence. As it is, the story telegraphs answers to a couple major questions when, with little effort, the author might have shaded the account of events to create doubt and keep the reader guessing along with Louise.
Less glaring to the general reader, though unfortunately common in fiction, the Jewish characters don’t feel genuine, which turns them into a narrative convenience. I also object to how certain authors consistently say “Nazis” to identify those who invaded other countries and committed mass murder and expropriation, as though “ordinary” Germans distanced themselves from those crimes.
I can’t help think that the author, or her publisher, wants to separate people we like from those we can hate with abandon. Too bad. Similarly, the novel presents a likable, admirable protagonist, born and raised in North Carolina, who befriends the Black women servants in her boardinghouse without a second thought. That seems a little easy.
Nevertheless, in other ways Louise’s War brilliantly presents a city during conflict, a heroine whose voice draws you in, and a mystery that will keep you turning the pages.
Disclaimer: I obtained by reading copy of this book from the public library.