Wednesday, May 18, 2011
THE BEAUTY CHORUS by Kate Lord Brown (2011) McArthur & Company, 430 pages
My grandmother's baby sister Elsie served in the Canadian Women's Army Corps during the Second World War, so I've been curious to read THE BEAUTY CHORUS because it focuses on the lives of three young women who meet because they volunteer, just as Elsie did, to make a unique contribution to the war effort by being trained by the Air Transport Auxiliary Unit to fly and ferry planes between the air bases in England, the existence of which I previously knew nothing about.
In selecting "High Flight" by 19-year-old Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. to serve as the epigraph to THE BEAUTY CHORUS, Kate Lord Brown establishes the mood for the novel even before the narrative unfurls:
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of..."
It's New Year's Eve, 1940, and the lithe and winsome debutante Evie Chase finds it difficult to join in the celebratory fun at her father's annual fête while the war rumbles on about her. Raised in great privilege and provided the finest things her indulging father could offer, twenty-year-old Evie is beginning to understand the dissonance such a life provokes as bombs fall nightly in nearby London. Evie realizes that her life ought to be about more than parties and picnics and riding her horse Montgomery and she dreams of making a real contribution to the war effort. When her childhood friend Peter introduces her as "a very good pilot" to Captain Eric Bailey who helps to run the Air Transport Auxiliary at White Waltham just down the road, Evie is thrilled.
When Edie appears at the ATA training centre wearing her full length mink and high heeled shoes, she turns more than a few heads and assumptions are made about her character, but those assumptions are wrong. Edie is strong-willed and prepared to do what it takes to prove that she is worthy of the task, especially in the eyes of sexist men on the base. Edie suffers no fools and finds herself bunking with two other young women in a modest cottage close to White Waltham. Like Edie, Megan and Stella have an abiding desire to participate in the war effort. Megan's a hardworking Welsh farm girl who has suffered the loss of her only brother in the war and Stella says she's a widowed single mother whose only child has been evacuated to Ireland where he is staying with her in-laws for safety. All three young women are plucky and resourceful and totally supportive of each other, especially during difficult moments, of which there are many.
They have a model female pilot in Amy Johnson, an actual historical figure who ferried many planes for the ATA until she crashed into the Thames Estuary, as she does in a flashback sequence. Amy functions as a ghostly presence in the novel, the philosopher queen waxing about her passion for the skies and her mortal ingratitude for life's little pleasures and her intention to "not leave these girls" and "be their guardian angel, flying beside their Spitfires' wings. When they are looking for a break in the clouds, I shall be the wind that parts a safe course home." And, for the most part, you would do well to place your faith in the spectre of Amy Johnson. It is only when an engine is intentionally sabotaged that her ghostly presence is ineffective and the consequences are dire.
To keep the subplot sporting, Lord Brown includes love triangles for each of the girls. Megan has Bill and Peter angling for her affection; Stella is tethered to the idea of her dead husband Richard while she's also drawn to the artistic kindred spirit of Michael; Evie is engaged to Jack, an American pilot who adores every inch of her, yet also is drawn to "Beau," the complicated instructor who trained her.
I was impressed by Lord Brown's fanatical attention to the mechanics of flight and felt that although the girls were very comfortable with the idiosyncratic language involving gauges and dials, that I, by contrast, remained a dullard.
The final fifty pages of THE BEAUTY CHORUS are riveting. Through private letters Evie discovers some upsetting information not meant for her eyes that alters her perspective on what really matters, Beau's secret assignment leads him into dangerous territory both physical and psychological and Stella receives news that will change the course of the rest of her life. As each of these narrative threads resolves itself, your heart will be adrenaline-pumping alongside the characters, hoping beyond hope that they make it safely home.
Grab a copy of THE BEAUTY CHORUS and settle in to your favourite reading spot as you immerse yourself in this wonderful story, convincingly told about a group of women whose contribution to the war through their dedicated service to the Air Transport Auxiliary was essential in its support of the Allied effort.
Follow @katelordbrown on Twitter and be sure to visit the blog "Ask Evie" that provides news about the book at http://thebeautychorus.blogspot.com/ and to drop by Kate's personal blog to find out "What Kate Did Next": http://katelordbrown.blogspot.com/