Sep 11 2012
Dear Ms. Lofty,
I put off writing this review. Had I written it right after finishing His Very Own Girl, I’d have nattered on and about the importance of abandoning partisan politics and working together for a greater good. But, once I calmed down and stopped bawling–His Very Own Girl is a surpassingly affecting novel–I realized I don’t have to beseech anyone to do anything other than read your book. Its leads are Lulu, a pilot for the English Air Transport Auxiliary, and Joe, a medic in the American Infantry. Their story, which takes place in 1944 and 1945, reads as though it was written in the 1940′s–the research you must have done for this book shines through every sentence. I’m guessing this book was, in the best way, a labor of love. As you say in your author’s note,
I adore Lulu and Joe. So many men and women plunged into marriage when the world seemed destined for destruction. I like to think my fictional characters serve as a tiny memorial to all of those brave lovers.
Battlefield medics rank among the unsung heroes of military service in World War II. The Geneva Convention prohibited killing unarmed personnel, but as the war progressed, that consideration was regularly ignored. Because parachute regiments dropped into surrounded positions, their medics were often embedded with the same company. As such, Joe was lucky. Others were frequently moved, never having the chance to bond with men they were tasked with treating.
Female pilots from around the world flocked to Britain to “do their bit” with the Air Transport Auxiliary. Men declared F4—unfit for military service—were also welcomed into their ranks. These selfless civilians freed countless pilots from ferrying duties. The organization was the first British agency to offer equal wages for men and women, yet the ATA’s contribution to the war effort has been largely forgotten.
I’d never heard of the ATA and was fascinated to learn about this unusual institution–Lulu and her female flying friends were Rosie the Riveter writ large. These women weren’t in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). WAAFs were limited, in general, to women’s work, and were not allowed to fly. The Air Transport Auxiliary pilots flew Royal Air Force planes and one in eight pilots was female. These women received–unheard of at the time and non-existent for American WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots)–equal pay for equal work and were, by the end of the war, allowed to fly almost every kind of aircraft used by the Brits.
Lulu works hard for and cherishes every opportunity the war offers her even as the conflict itself breaks her heart. She lives in the British Midlands at Mersley, an estate owned by a plane-loving patriotic peer. Sir Meredith Henderson and his wife Georgette house not only aircraft but Lulu and the eight other ATA pilots stationed there. It’s a nice place to be in 1944, compared to Lulu’s hometown of London. For one thing, Georgette raises chickens and cows. “The eggs, milk, and cheese helped stretch ration coupons into genuine meals.” Mersley is also just a bus ride away from Leicestershire where the US 82nd Airborne–the AllAmericans–are lodged.
One night, after crashing her malfunctioning Hurricane (a British single-seater fighter plane), Lulu, relatively unscathed, and her gal pals head into Leicestershire for a night of dancing at the Henley club. There, she encounters Joe for the second time that day; he’d been the medic on the scene at her crash. Joe is by himself at the bar. Unlike Lulu who’s with friends and supremely confident, Joe isn’t at ease.
Joe was ready to head back to the barracks. Alone.
This is ridiculous.
Smitty was a private, for God’s sake, and a frecklefaced kid from Philly to boot. Yet he’d ducked out with that pretty Scottish nurse almost an hour ago. What women saw in Pvt. Peter Smithson was impossible to figure. That left Joe to mull over his prospects, working on his second beer. He wished for just a fraction of the kid’s courage when it came to chatting with dames. But three years locked up at Plainfield had stripped much of Joe’s bravado. Surely girls could still catch a whiff of that clinging prison stink.
The club was swamped with officers, most of whom eyed him with barely concealed malice. Unless they wanted trouble, they couldn’t do a thing to kick him out. They were on civilian turf. Still, as the hooch flowed freely, Joe knew he was there on borrowed time. The restless energy in the room was gathering and building. Men turned to brawling when their prospects for getting lucky dried up, which meant a lot of the soldiers in the Henley were spoiling for it. In the three weeks since he’d arrived in England, Joe had yet to make it through an evening out without witnessing—or surviving—a brawl.
When Lulu walks up to Joe and gets him to buy her a beer, he’s thrilled to see her again. After a bit of chit-chat, he asks her to dance. As they sway in each other’s arms, they discover they have some serious chemistry and two intensely different views of the world. Lulu has a motto for men: “one night only.” She trusts herself to fly, she trusts the friends she’s found in the ATA–especially her supervisor, Nicky, a gentle, kind man with whom Lulu shares a sweet careful flirtation–and that’s about it. Lulu’s parents were shot down in 1939 by the Italians; her fiancé killed himself after he returned from the horror of Dunkirk. Lulu spent the Blitz homeless, sleeping in a Tube station. She’ll kiss a man on the dance floor, promise to write him when he heads out into the field, and plan to never see him again. Anything more would put her heart at risk and she’s unwilling to love and lose again. When she–rarely–thinks about her future, all she focuses on is finding a way to continue to fly.
Joe, on the other hand, thinks about his future constantly and it’s a future based on the way life used to be. He dreams of a safe job, coming home after work to a little house, a wife, and a couple of kids. He spent three years in prison for nearly killing a man who raped his sister. He knows how easily everything he wants can be taken away and he longs for a life where he and his future family are safe and secure.
As he and Lulu dance, they begin arguing almost immediately about the role of women in war and, it seemed to me, in the world they live in. Lulu, who thinks he’s a hunk, tells him how little like a medic he seems.
“It’s just that when I think medic, I think doctor. And when I think doctor, I think spectacles and books and studying—not, well, not . . . muscles.”
Joe lost the song’s rhythm and chugged to a graceless stop. She stole his breath with another impetuous squeeze of his biceps, as if testing his resilience, while delicate pink shaded the tip of her nose and the apples of her cheeks.
“I told you it was embarrassing,” she said, her voice husky.
“What’s embarrassing is how disarming you are.”
“That won’t do in the least! Not around Allied troops, at any rate. Perhaps I should jump with you into Berlin, help disarm the Germans?”
The idea of Lulu Davies or any woman making a combat jump pushed ice chips through his veins. Bad enough she was a civilian pilot, ferrying planes all over Britain—dangerous work that women shouldn’t need to do. Her crack wasn’t funny because it hit too close to home.
“No,” he said quietly. “I think you’re doing enough.”
For the first time since they’d started dancing, Lulu’s expression curdled. A hard gleam invaded her brown eyes. She ended their embrace. “I see. Is that the lay of it, Private?”
Needing something to do with his prematurely empty hands, Joe crossed his arms over his chest. The two of them squared off in the midst of those swaying couples. Rarely had he been so frank with a woman. Now he was going to suffer.
But good Lord, he didn’t regret it. He was there to claw his way onto the Continent and wrest each inch of territory back from Hitler. The job of every last GI was to protect those weaker than himself, not to laugh at a joke that any civilized man should’ve found insulting. Women near the front lines? His stomach twisted.
This tension between Lulu and Joe defines much of their relationship. One reason His Very Own Girl works so well is that both their perspectives are presented as viable. This is, in large part, because the book is so firmly rooted in 1944. The sensibilities of its characters are those of people from another time–what almost seems like another world. Today, Joe would be a sexist; in 1944 he’s a guy from the Midwest trying to make sense of a world changing in ways he can barely understand let alone embrace.
As the weeks pass and their relationship lasts for more than her promised just one night, Lulu finds Joe’s attitude upsetting and disheartening. Yet she understands it. She knows the freedoms and challenges she’s allowed won’t be available to her when the war ends. She’s angry at and hurt by Joe because he sees her accomplishments as dangerous to her and to the way he hopes life after wartime will be. Joe and Lulu have differing, even incompatible, dreams for the future but this doesn’t prevent them from falling in love; it just makes their love unsettling and hard.
As Lulu and Joe struggle with their affair, they are surrounded by friends, fellow pilots, soldiers, and civilians. These secondary characters are portrayed with depth and evince many of the ways people adapted to and thought about the war. Lulu and Joe care deeply for those around them and worry for their safety. Some of their friends survive, some don’t. Some change for the worse, but far more change for the better. The men and women in this novel give credence to the eponym The Greatest Generation. One can argue the merits of the group have been disproportionately praised, but in His Very Own Girl the determination of so many to do the right thing despite danger, desperation, and deprivation packs a powerful punch.
His Very Own Girl is a true wartime romance. Joe and Lulu meet in January of 1944 and spend six months trying to sort out whether they want to be a couple. In June, Joe is dropped in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion and for months, he and Lulu are apart as they both fight for the Allies. Joe’s lot is far worse than Lulu’s–as a medic in one of modern civilization’s bloodiest conflicts, he sees his fellow troops blown to smithereens on a daily basis. There is a great deal of war in this book–the lives of the men on the ground in Europe in 1944 and 1945 were harsh and bloody. Joe begins each day unsure he will live to see its end. He, like the men around him, is freezing, underfed, and, at times, on the verge of madness. Joe, though, finds solace in the work he does as a medic. He’s neither an officer nor a physician but the soldiers he tends to him call him “Doc” and value him tremendously. Joe works to stay focused not on the death around him but on the dream he has of life after war, a life he’s sure he wants to share with Lulu. The brightest part of his day is when he reads and rereads the increasingly loving letters she writes. Lulu, for her part, is given bigger and better planes to fly along with more dangerous missions. She’s never in combat but she does fly all over Europe. As the war drags on and she’s apart from Joe, the more she worries he won’t make it home or, like Robbie, he’ll come home damaged beyond repair. Even as Nicky offers her a life more in line with the goals she has for herself, Lulu begins to dream of a future with Joe.
The writing in His Very Own Girl is deft. Page after page has scenes like this one in which Lulu and Joe are readying to go dancing after spending a weekend locked in each other’s arms in a drab London hotel room during Joe’s leave. Lulu’s stockings–she only has the one pair–are laddered beyond repair.
From there on the floor Joe had the best view of her legs—swear to God, eight feet long. “You don’t need them. You’ve got great gams.”
“Thank you again,” she said, almost blushing this time. “But you could help me, you know.”
She pulled a tiny stub of kohl pencil from her toiletries bag. “Use this to draw on the seams, like seams on a stocking—well, as close as we can get these days. I can’t draw them straight by myself.”
The erotic and the surreal mashed together. “You want me to draw on your legs?”
“It’s not art. Just two straight lines. Not so challenging if you can keep your hands steady. You can manage that, can’t you, Doc Web?”
“I don’t know.”
“At least you’re honest,” she said with a giggle. “Give it a go. Worst case, I’ll have to wash up again, but I’ll make you help.”
“That’s no incentive.”
“You’re right. Well, then, don’t waste my kohl. This is the last pencil I own. Even if I were rich as Croesus, I doubt I’d be able to replace it.” She arched one of those decadent eyebrows. “You game?”
“Give it to me.”
Lulu turned her back to him while Joe shifted to his knees. He found himself staring at the ankle of her right leg. Could an ankle be sexy? He’d never given it much thought, not until faced with that absolutely perfect specimen.
She held very still as he trailed the black kohl up the center line of her Achilles tendon, then her shapely calf. But when he reached the back of her knee, she twitched and giggled.
“Tickles,” she said.
“Not your fault.”
When he reached the smooth alabaster skin just above her knee, he asked, “How far up?”
“All the way up, if you could. I want to be able to spin when we dance.”
Lulu and Joe are an entrancing couple. They fight to be true to themselves, to each other, and to the cause they serve. Their romance is gorgeous and I enjoyed it a great deal.
I found reading this novel to be heartrending. WWII is arguably the war I know the most about. I listened to my now dead grandfather talk about the Guadalcanal Campaign; I know every song in “South Pacific.” I’ve seen Shoah, sat through a simulated air raid, and lived the first year and a half of my life in Dachau where my father was stationed. His Very Own Girl depicts the era of WWII vividly; it’s one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read. I want others to read it… with tissues at the ready. I give it an A-.
P.S. There is one thing I wondered about. No one in the book, not Lulu and the British she works with, nor Joe and the American troops, ever speaks about the Holocaust. I know Churchill deplored the German treatment of the Jews to the House of Commons in 1942. In July of 1944, he gave permission to bomb the train lines to Auschwitz. In His Very Own Girl the plight of the Jews isn’t mentioned until January of 1945. I asked several historians I know whether or not it was likely for people like Lulu and Jo to be unaware of Hitler’s plan and was startled to get conflicting answers. It seems to come down to where one was when and whom one believed. It clearly would have been possible for Lulu and Joe to not have known of the Final Solution; still, its omission disconcerted me.