Julie Thompson reviews The Liberators of Willow Run by Marianne K. Martin

the-liberators-of-willow-run

***A little bit of spoilers ahead***

Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.

During World War II, the United States “enlisted” women to help with the war effort on the homefront. At the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Audrey Draper is securing her independence with each B-24 Liberator heavy bomber her crew assembles. The women tax their minds and limbs as they build plane after plane after plane. The demand is incessant, so for the most part no one cares about their co-workers’ personal lives unless it interferes with the work at hand.

In another world not many miles away in Jackson, Michigan, Ruth Evans is shipped off to The Crittenton Home, a place for families to hide pregnant, unwed relations. The deep friendships that Ruth develops with some of the women give her strength to overcome the limitations of her environment. These relationships will determine the course her life and the lives of those around her, takes.

Most of the women employed at the bomber plant are married or engaged or otherwise involved; Audrey and Nona are exceptions. For the world at large, Audrey has a boyfriend stationed overseas with the US Army. She isn’t comfortable with the lies her sexuality necessitates, but she does what she has to in order to protect her autonomy. Between 1943 and 1946, she has a steady job and folks don’t complain (much) about the slacks she wears or lack of rouge on her cheeks. It is what comes after the war that she worries about. Can she secure a meaningful career, one that doesn’t require too many personal compromises? While the novel wraps up all loose ends rather quickly at the end, the conclusion is not implausible. It resonates with the hopeful tone that permeates the story.

The tale initially alternates between Audrey and Ruth, converging a quarter way into the book when the two women meet and bond over scoops of ice cream. Their burgeoning friendship is impeded by guilt and insecurity. The Liberators of Willow Run follows a familiar push-and-pull romance, with the heroines discovering more about themselves and the women they will become as they help other people and each other. It’s a quick read; I devoured it on New Year’s Day.

The leads and supporting cast possess admirable qualities: they lift each other up, instead of trampling each other underfoot. Certain aspects of the story are a bit surprising. Nona’s ready acceptance of a secret Audrey shares at the start of their friendship, for example. Not to say that some folks aren’t unflappable; perhaps the two women’s status as “other” makes this acceptance possible. At times, the world of Willow Run feels like a sky with minimal clouds. This isn’t to say that the women don’t experience misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, and limited career options. They do, but those moments never feel insurmountable or harrowing. The novel could have easily gotten stuck telling too many stories at once or seeming to tack on certain narratives without infusing them with genuine feeling.

Secondary characters showcase a range of attitudes regarding women and African-Americans in the workplace. Up until the divergent narratives merge, I thought that Nona would play a larger role in the novel. She is a self-aware woman who is unwilling to sacrifice her educational and career goals. Unlike her white counterparts, she must contend with both sexism and racism. She is also generous in her friendships and confident when facing barriers. Jack and Lucy, a married couple who work at Willow Run and give Audrey rides to work, take a pragmatic view of life and seek a level playing field for folks who do the best they can. When riots near the church Nona is staying at prevent her from getting to work on time, Jack speaks up on her behalf because the foreman isn’t willing to listen to women. Myopic views on social roles are found in characters like the crew foreman, who constantly groans about women at the plant, and in June, a reluctant wage earner who believes a woman’s only place is in the home, raising children. She also ignores Nona, and speaks over Bennie, an easy going co-worker who stutters when he speaks.

The Liberators of Willow Run gives readers a world in which the family you choose enables endless possibilities.It brims with hope in the face of limited choices and half-truths. The women are keenly aware of their limitations, though their friends more readily see the good, the potential, that lie in their hearts. While I would have enjoyed more details placing me solidly in the United States during the 1940s, it was an overall enjoyable lazy day read.

Women on the Warpath (1943) – Inside the Willow Run B-24 Plant: https://youtu.be/HQKvBPjxMo4

Building The B-24 Bomber During WWII “Story Of Willow Run” 74182
https://archive.org/details/74182StoryOfWillowRun

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Korri reviews Petticoats and Promises by Penelope Friday

petticoats-and-promises-cover

I love historical romance novels, especially those featuring women who love women (see Pembroke Park). The high stakes of that love when women could not earn a living and had to secure their livelihoods and social position through strategic marriages automatically creates tension and drama. Petticoats and Promises, a Regency romance by Penelope Friday, is a mostly entertaining read in that genre.

A few weeks before their joint coming out ball, Serena Coleridge is astonished to realize that she is in love for her best friend, Clara Battersley, and that the feeling is mutual. As the young women discuss the fact that their debut is an announcement of availability on the marriage market, Serena confesses that she cannot imagine loving someone as much as she does Clara. Their tête-à-tête is interrupted that afternoon but their feelings do not remain unspoken for long; soon the girls share passionate kisses and sensual encounters. On the eve of their coming out ball, Serena’s father’s stocks plummet, leaving no money for a season. Serena does not mind the loss of the social whirl – she is more concerned about losing access to her beloved. An invitation to visit the Coleridges in London is the perfect excuse for Clara and Serena to be together – until they are caught by Clara’s mother, who sends Serena home in disgrace. The rest of the novel follows the aftermath as Serena is cut off from Clara, who quickly marries; deals with her parents’ sorrow and mortification; and navigates the turbulent waters of society. She is sponsored in town by her Aunt Hester and becomes friends with the awkward but kind Mr. Feverley and Miss Kate Smith, another “invert,” which helps her to heal.

Penelope Friday doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer imitating Jane Austen) – she allows Serena Coleridge’s first person narration to render acute observations about social interactions and give readers a glimpse of what life was like in the Regency period. Friday is good at depicting the constraints of the era – never being alone or having time to oneself without servants or parents around, the need to abide by rules and strictures of good breeding. The problem with such insularity, of course, is that the novel focuses solely on Serena’s internal emotional life and yearning for Clara, without the cutting wit and sense of irony that makes Jane Austen’s writing so beloved. Since Clara and Serena share so much history then spend most of the novel apart, it can be difficult to feel invested in them as a couple. The endless misunderstandings between Serena and Clara are another issue with the novel; if only they spoke openly and thoroughly, their happily ever after could have come much sooner. But there is a happily ever after indeed!

 

Korri reviews Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin

pembroke park michelle martin

As an avid reader of historical romance novels and lesbian fiction, I have long known of Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park; it has a legendary status among readers, which is only heightened by the fact that it is currently out of print. When I got my hands on a copy via AbeBooks, I eagerly delved in.

Published in 1986, Martin’s delightful book (billed as the first lesbian Regency novel) is more in the vein of Jane Austen than contemporary romance novels. The social intricacies of the era are observed: the heroines know each other for months before addressing each other by first name; gossip spread at public balls in the Herefordshire countryside can ruin reputations; and the villains of the story are an arrogant, overbearing brother and propriety rather than some dastardly foe with a complicated scheme.

Amid this simplicity, it was wonderful to read about the growing attachment between new neighbors Lady Joanna Sinclair and Lady Diana March. Though Lady Diana’s habit of riding astride shocks the locals, including widowed Lady Joanna, the two women become close. Who could help but love the unconventional Diana, a woman who is free in her speech, exotic in her attire, and who was once hauled before a court in Alexandria ‘on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct, assaulting an officer of the law, liberating a trader’s camel, and soliciting the English Ambassador for prostitution’? Joanna’s playfulness with her daughter and repressed talent for painting endears her to readers and to Diana.

The slow-building attraction between Joanna & Diana is charming. The secondary characters offer other portrayals of same-sex love and ground Joanna & Diana within a community. I only wish the happily ever after had given us more time with the heroines, showing readers what their life was like as a family with Joanna’s daughter Molly. This novel has earned a place on my keeper shelf next to other Regency romances.