Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Louise's War by Sarah Shaber

Sarah Shaber. Louise’s War. Severn House, Surrey, England, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7278-8040-6. $27.95.

Sarah Shaber, a Raleigh writer, whose five Simon Shaw mysteries I enjoyed, has a new series set during World War II in Washington, D.C. Louise’s War, the first book, introduces Louise Pearlie, a young widow from Wilmington, N.C., who has a job as a clerk in the Office of Strategic Services, an earlier version of the CIA.

When I visited Washington in 1983, I was told by a government employee that everyone working for the government was paranoid. This was also true in 1942. Louise learns that her loved college friend, Rachel Bloch, is in trouble in Vichy, France, the puppet government set up by the Nazis.

Jews are being arrested and sent by cattle cars to "work camps" in Germany. The message to her office concerns Rachel’s husband, who’s a skilled hydrographer. He promises to help the allies, if only his family can be evacuated out of France to safety. Bloch knows well the currents off the Mediterranean coast of Africa, where the Americans will soon be fighting the Nazis, and the U.S. very much needs this knowledge.

In the beginning of the book Louise feels quite powerless. She’s desperate to help Rachel, but what can she do and who in the Office of Strategic services is trustworthy? She finally takes the Bloch file to her boss, but then he dies and the file goes missing.

Gradually our shy, newly independent heroine gets braver. Her vivid imagination torments her as to what awaits Rachel and her child, if she’s left in France, and also reminds her of her own fate–prison?–should she be caught breaking the very strict OSS rules in her schemes to rescue Rachel.

Meantime, life goes on at Two Trees, the boarding house where Louise lives and where she meets Joe. She feels an electric attraction to Joe, which both thrills and terrifies her. She accepts a date with Joe and then learns he’s not the teacher he’s led her to believe. He’s leading a secret life. In fact, most of the people she meets are.

The D.C. political and government culture of the forties during the early phase of the war is as vivid as the homey details of the boarding house, where Dellaphine is cook and housekeeper and manages delicious meals, despite the rationing, even hand-made ice cream. The housekeeper’s daughter’s ambition to get a higher paying job working for the government is harder for Dellaphine to understand.

The backdrop for the whole book is humid heat–by day and by night–at work and at home. This is before air conditioning, or "refrigerated houses," as they were called, and only the very rich had them.

As Louise takes bolder and bolder risks, with men and with rule-breaking, to find the missing file and help her friend in France, I wanted to cheer, even while I held my breath.

Shaber knows her history, has made vivid exactly what Washington was like, from the big boys like FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, to the new independence and opportunities emerging slowly for women and Negroes. This is a fascinating read, a book to savor long after you’ve turned the last page.

Judy Hogan

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