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.