En­ter­tain­ing, in­for­ma­tive war tale

Cape Times - - BOOKS -

DEAR MRS BIRD AJ Pierce Pi­cador


IT’S a dark De­cem­ber day in 1940 when we meet Em­me­line Lake, sit­ting on the bus on her way home from her typ­ing job at a so­lic­i­tor’s firm in Lon­don.

She lives with Bunty, her friend from her school days in a small vil­lage.

The book is set in World War II and Emmy, as she is known, also vol­un­teers for the fire ser­vices, an­swer­ing phone calls on shifts when the Luft­waffe be­gin their al­most nightly bom­bard­ment of Lon­don.

De­spite this, the book’s main char­ac­ter – and al­most all the rest of them – speaks in the rather catchy man­ner of Eng­land in that time.

There are lots of “jolly good”, “spiff­in­gly”, and “to­tal rot” float­ing around. If you find it mildly an­noy­ing, don’t be tempted to put down the book, be­cause it car­ries some gems.

On this every­day trip, Emmy finds an ad­ver­tise­ment for a ju­nior at the Launce­ton Press, the pub­lish­ers of the Lon­don Evening Chron­i­cle.

She is be­side her­self with joy be­cause all Emmy has ever wanted is to be a jour­nal­ist, or more par­tic­u­larly, “A lady war cor­re­spon­dent”.

She races home to the flat she shares with Bunty at the top of Bunty’s grand­mother’s Lon­don house, to share the fab­u­lous news with Bunty. Her dream job is in front of her and all she has to do is write a let­ter.

Emmy gets her in­ter­view and of course ar­rives fright­fully early, and as she stands out­side the im­pos­ing build­ing which houses the Launce­ton Press, “as I tipped my head back, hold­ing on to Bunty’s hat with one hand and clutch­ing my hand­bag on the other, I was al­ready slightly un­bal­anced when a very cross voice boomed, ‘Quick sticks there, no one likes a slow coach’.

“A sub­stan­tial lady had come out of the build­ing in what looked like a man’s fe­dora hat.”

Shaken a lit­tle by the en­counter, Emmy goes into the build­ing and is di­rected to the of­fice where the in­ter­view is to be held.

It’s a quiet part of the build­ing with seem­ingly only one per­son in it: Mr Collins, whose of­fice is in a state of chaos.

He in­ter­views Emmy and she lands the job.

Her won­der­ful new life is all set to be­gin, un­til she ar­rives and dis­cov­ers that she is not on the fast track to be­com­ing a re­porter, but rather the typ­ist and gen­eral dogs­body for Mrs Bird, the very same woman she has met com­ing for the in­ter­view.

And, she isn’t work­ing for the Lon­don Evening Chron­i­cle, but rather for the Woman’s Friend, a strug­gling women’s weekly mag­a­zine.

Emmy is rather sorry about all of this, but sets her­self on a course to make it work.

Mrs Bird isn’t even a proper jour­nal­ist, she writes the weekly advice col­umn. Or rather she writes very lit­tle of it be­cause there are cat­e­gories of let­ters that she won’t an­swer.

Those would be any­thing that in­cludes “un­pleas­ant­ness”, an um­brella term for queries about mar­i­tal woes, re­quests for help on not giv­ing up one’s virtue and a whole range of top­ics.

Emmy shares her of­fice with Kath­leen, a quirky young woman who takes Mrs Bird and her ridicu­lous dic­tates fairly se­ri­ously.

Emmy’s been there for a while when she re­alises it is just not fair that read­ers send­ing in des­per­ate let­ters dur­ing a time of war, when every­thing is so un­set­tled, are hav­ing their mis­sives cut up into tiny pieces.

And so Emmy starts to an­swer them her­self.

That’s al­most the main plot of the book, and if it was all that Dear Mrs Bird is about, it would be very easy to dis­miss as just an­other rainy day read. But it’s so much more. As Emmy and Bunty live their lives un­der con­stant nightly bom­bard­ment from the sky, AJ Pearce tells us the story of the lives of young women dur­ing the war.

While they may walk lightly through streets with craters in them, and know from Bunty’s young man Bill, who is a fire­man, that un­men­tion­able scenes of hor­ror play out on them ev­ery night, they are still very much young women on the cusp of their adult lives.

This is where the book gets se­ri­ous be­neath the lay­ers of chats and high jinks.

There is a war on, and look­ing back we know that it was a war that changed the way that women would see each other for­ever.

With men of a work­ing age at war, the the­atre that Emmy so wants to be part of, women are keep­ing the home fires burn­ing (when their houses aren’t ac­tu­ally burn­ing).

This is a gen­er­a­tion of women who stood straight and looked for­ward dur­ing a siege of a city that sought to bring it to its knees.

They en­tered the work­force as fac­tory hands, land girls, and yes, typ­ists.

Of course they wrote let­ters, just as the read­ers of the Women’s Friend do.

They wrote to their loved ones fight­ing the war, they wrote home to their fam­i­lies in small towns – but they also put on their danc­ing shoes and went out and spun around glo­ri­ously to the sound of mu­sic.

AJ Pierce brings the story of be­ing a young woman in Lon­don alive.

There is love and loss, the pos­si­bil­ity of new ways of do­ing things, and the dis­cov­ery that even if you have walked through the flames of hell look­ing for some­one, you will even­tu­ally be safe.

Be­cause of its of­ten-light­hearted tone, it would be all too easy to miss the hor­ror be­neath the brave faces – how the small do­mes­tic acts of power paint a pic­ture of a world where fas­cists would rule.

Dear Mrs Bird is a clever novel, which en­ter­tains while in­form­ing about a par­tic­u­lar time and a par­tic­u­lar place in his­tory. It’s a de­light of a novel.

And it will have you smil­ing and cry­ing all at the same time.

They walk lightly through streets with craters, young women on the cusp of adult lives

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