This historical novel is based on the life of Elizabeth Bentley, an American who was recruited into the American Communist Party by friends. Soon thereafter, Bentley discovers a valuable role she can play for the party, a role that she believes will also help her country. Bentley falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, and together they form the largest foreign spy ring in the United States. All through World War II, she tells herself that she is not a traitor to her country because the Soviet Union is a U.S. ally so to help one is to help the other.
Things become much more perilous after the war when the United States and Soviet Union enter the period of hostility known as the Cold War. Events test Elizabeth’s loyalties until eventually she must irrevocably choose sides.
Bentley’s life is fascinating, and she certainly played a pivotal role in the mid-twentieth-century history. However, my enthusiasm for the novel was blunted a bit by its format. It is told as a dialogue between Elizabeth and a young woman who is searching for answers about her biological mother, whom she believes was one of Elizabeth’s associates. I think the story would have been more vivid if it hadn’t been spun in this retrospective way.
Despite that quibble, I recommend A Most Clever Girl to anyone interested in the era of Red scares, McCarthyism, and the Cold War.
I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.
Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.
After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.
Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.
As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.
Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates.
While doing research for my current work-in-progress, I wanted to find vintage photos of teenage boys in the 1945s. Fortunately for me, Life magazine published a photoessay on teen boys in 1945. Fast forward to the 1.54 mark of the this video.
This novel is the sequel to the 2015 novel The Gilded Hour, which I also enjoyed.
Where the Light Enters takes place in New York in 1884, and through it, the reader gets to glimpse both those who are comfortably well off and those who are struggling just to survive. As in the previous novel, the two main characters are Doctors Anna and Sophie Savard. Anna is a surgeon. Sophie is a double rarity—not only a female physician, but also a multiracial one—which causes her to experience double-pronged discrimination.
Anna and Sophie are cousins, but because both were orphaned as children, they were raised together by an aunt and are as close as (or possibly closer than) sisters. The story opens at a particularly difficult time for Sophie; she is returning from Europe, where her husband went to be treated for tuberculosis—without success. Now, as a widow who has inherited a substantial estate, she must decide whether to return to her medical practice and how else to carry on with her life when all she wants to do is grieve the man she has loved since they were children.
In the previous book, the two doctors—and their midwife aunt—came under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock because of his crusade against the propagation of knowledge about birth control. Comstock appears in this novel as well, falsely accusing one of the cousins of urging a patient to have “an illegal operation,” i.e. an abortion.
Anna is married to Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, whose large Italian family plays an important role in both books. Shortly after their marriage, Anna and Jack take in three Italian immigrant orphans, but the Church objects to the children being raised by people who aren’t “good Catholics.” The fate of the three Russo children is a thread that continues into Where the Light Enters.
Jack’s work as a police detective is another thread that ties both books together. In the first novel, he and his partner Oscar try to solve a series of six grisly murders that were apparently intended to punish women for seeking an abortion. The investigation of those cases continues into the second novel and grows more urgent when new cases arise that appear to be related to the earlier murders.
For me, the characters are what make this book an unforgettable experience. I loved Anna, Jack, Sophie, and Rosa especially, but all of the main and secondary characters are vividly drawn. The author does an adequate job filling the reader in on the essentials from the earlier story, so it’s not necessary to read the two novels in sequence, but I recommend doing so.
When I was a teenager, every summer we would go to a picnic hosted by the company my mother worked for. One of the features of the event was a watermelon-weight-guessing contest, and it was because of this game that I learned about a peculiar skill of my father’s.
Anyone who wanted to play would pick up the designated watermelon and guess its weight. I clearly recall the first time it happened. Dad walked up to the watermelon, picked it up, moved it up and down a few times, and said, “Twenty-seven and a quarter pounds.” People laughed at how precise his number was. After everyone had a turn, my mom’s boss revealed the melon’s weight. It was exactly 27.25 pounds. Dad’s on-the-noses guesses happened several years in a row.
You see, in the decades before UPS became a nationwide shipping service, the United States had the Railway Express Agency, and sometime in the years before I was born, my father worked for them. So he handled a lot of packages in his day and learned to judge their weight with uncanny accuracy.
My parents, decades after Dad worked for Railway Express, but still enjoying watermelon!
The agency was founded as the American Railway Express Agency in 1918, soon became American Railway Express Inc, and for most of its existence (1929–1960), operated under the name Railway Express Agency.
The agency shipped packages all across the United States by way of special railcars attached to passenger trains and by trucks to the nearest train depot from towns that weren’t on the railroad. After World War II ended, a coal shortage hit the nation, forcing the railroads to cut back on passenger service. That made the agency’s job of routing shipments more complicated because Railway Express didn’t have trains of its own.
The shipping agency faced other difficulties during the postwar years. Toward the end of the war, the federal government authorized the creation of a system of interstate highways, which would make truck shipments more feasible than before. Also, during the postwar boom, more families bought automobiles, and family road trips became increasingly popular. This caused a further decline in rail travel.
To keep its indispensable place in the nation’s economy, the agency acquired a fleet of refrigerated rail cars, known as reefers, for express shipments of perishable goods. That strategy bought the agency only a short-lived reprieve, however. Shipping by truck increased, and UPS began to ship by air. Railway Express failed to keep up, and in 1975, the agency (by then called REA Express, Inc.) terminated operations.
Because of the family history, in the new novel I’m writing, I’ve decided to have the father of my main character work as a package handler for good old Railway Express. The novel is set in the 1940s and 1950s, the last glory days of a bygone American institution.
After the end of World War II, the first shipment of the remains of U.S. military dead arrived in the United States in October 1947. Congress had authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million bringing back the dead of all the armed forces as well as civilian federal employees. As I mentioned last week, families had the option of having their loved ones buried in cemeteries overseas, which is also where those remains that could not be identified were buried (except for one that was returned to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington). The majority of families, however, wanted their loved ones brought home.
The army stationed people at military terminals located in two U.S. ports—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—to coordinate the unloading of the ships and the routing of remains by rail to fifteen distribution centers across the country. The army used its own fleet of mortuary cars, converted primarily from wartime hospital cars.
The military made every effort to treat the fallen with dignity. The remains of soldiers, sailors, and marines were not listed or handled as cargo; they were considered passengers. Military guards, who were recruited from regular troops, accompanied every train.
Once the remains reached the intended distribution center, they either went by hearse to the final location, if it was close enough, or on a passenger train, following the same procedures that railroads used for normal shipments of human remains.
Each of the dead had a military escort, who would be from the same service branch and of the same rank, sex, and race as the deceased. These escorts were not the same personnel as the troops who worked as train guards. The escorts were the only members of the military to interact personally with the loved ones of the fallen, so they went through five weeks of training on what to expect, how to answer questions, and what emotional and psychological reactions they might encounter. Some of their duties included:
Making sure no caskets were lost
Ensuring that railroad personnel handled the caskets with dignity
Verifying locations and identities
Seeing that the caskets were draped with flags whenever they were in public view
Carrying a new flag for the funeral, blank ammunition rounds for graveside salutes, and reimbursement forms for the funeral expenses
By the time the army had finished repatriating all of the World War II dead, remains of personnel fallen during the Korean War had begun to arrive in Oakland, thus extending the program a few more years.
While working on a chapter that deals with the death of my main character’s uncle in the Italian campaign during World War II, I decided to look up how long it took to bring back the bodies of dead members of the U.S. military. Having grown up during the Vietnam War and seen the televised footage of caskets returning home, I assumed that it might take a few weeks or months at most. But the answer stunned me. The United States did not bring home the first shipment of World War II dead until October 1947, a full two years after the war ended.
More than 400,000 U.S. military personnel died during the war. The government offered the surviving families two burial options: 1) they could choose to have their loved ones buried in an overseas military cemetery, or 2) they could ask to have to the remains returned to the United States for burial.
World War II was a much more widespread and complicated conflict than any the United States had fought before; battlefields ranged across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The government realized that because the dead were found in such far-flung regions—and because not all of those places would be in friendly hands at war’s end—it was likely that many more families would want their loved one’s remains returned than had occurred after the end of World War I, which took place primarily in Europe.
Not all the dead were recovered. The remains of more than 280,000 Americans were found. (Some are still being found.) As it turned out, more than 171,000 families chose repatriation. In a little more than three-quarters of those cases, those who died were buried in private cemeteries, with the rest being eligible for burial in national cemeteries.
Why did it take so long to return the bodies?
First the war had to be won. The government had a policy against transporting remains while the conflict continued.
Second, after hostilities ceased, the military had an enormous job to get the live troops back home safely.
Third, recovering the bodies of the fallen, buried in temporary graves around the globe, was in itself a logistical nightmare.
Fourth, the government had to contact all the families of the dead to learn their wishes. The questionnaires did not go out to the families until 1946, and then the government had to compile the results so it would know what to do in each case.
Next week, I will write about the process of bringing the remains home.
Readers’ Favorite Gives The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the Gold Medal!
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