Entertaining, informative war tale
DEAR MRS BIRD AJ Pierce Picador
REVIEWER: JENNIFER CROCKER
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