The Factory Voice, set in Fort William, Ont. (now part of Thunder Bay) in the midst of the Second World War, is so much fun to read, with such an inventive and entertaining premise, that it would make a great television series.
First-time novelist Jeanette Lynes, best known for her award-winning poetry, has a great talent for bringing idiosyncratic characters to life while capturing wartime atmosphere, vernacular and anxiety.
At the same time, she shines a light on one of Canada's most fascinating women, Elsie McGill, a.k.a. Queen of the Hurricane, Canada's first female aeronautic engineer, who was called into service to help convert the Canada Car and Foundry in Fort William into a Hawker Hurricane fighter-jet factory.
Muriel McGregor, or Queen of the Mosquitoes, Lynes's fictional stand-in for Elsie McGill, is one of four spirited women recruited into the war effort. The 36-year-old "spinster" has risen to engineering stardom at a cost, and she arrives in the Canada's harsh north nursing a broken heart, a strained relationship with her mother (a prominent Vancouver juvenile court judge) and the after-effects of polio that has left her relying on a cane.
Ruby Kozak, a former Miss Fort William and aspiring newspaper reporter, runs the stenographer's pool, hires staff and is the heart and soul behind the company newsletter, The Factory Voice. Audrey Foley is a feisty, underage, aeronautics-loving waif who escapes Spruce Grove, Alta., and a certain marriage to an undesirable young man of her parents' choosing.
Finally, there's Florence Voutilainen, whose notable talent as a riveter belies the bright red "probation" scarf she has to wear because of wartime paranoia about her "Red Finn" mother.
The story opens with Ruby's hard-hitting report for The Factory Voice about a prison break in a nearby town, and one particular fugitive, Thaddeus Brink, with priors dating to his youth in Vancouver. Muriel's first day on the job leaves her weak-kneed, less from her exhausting walk around Fort William Aviation than from her glimpse of Brink on the Wanted poster in the head office foyer.
She's not the only one concealing a secret past. Ruby's perfect veneer, which leaves wafts of sweet lilac fragrance and many devotees in its wake, hides a marked past with mechanic/chauffeur/factory trainer Jimmy Petrik. Jimmy keeps his dealings with subversives under the radar. His cohort Reggie Hatch, the skinny, pimply kid from Rainy River, Ont., has love and career ambitions no one could even imagine.
Audrey claims she is from Prince Edward Island, thereby keeping the theft of her mom's cherry-jar savings and her flight from home under wraps. Ruby employs her as the snack-cart girl-cum-investigative informant; the former disappoints, the latter thrills her, not least because she adores and idolizes Ruby. Until one day when she sees past Ruby's saccharin disposition and switches her loyalty to Muriel, who grants a regular invite to teach her how airplanes work, satisfying the curiosity that brought Audrey to Fort William in the first place.
The brooding fugitive Thaddeus has covert dealings with both Florence's Red Finn mom, and with Muriel. Lieutenant-Colonel Roper McLaughlin poses as a government security agent and suitor to Muriel, when his actual relationship to her couldn't be further from that.
The mysteries of the four women and those of the men who surround them are slowly revealed through The Factory Voice newsletter, Audrey's hilarious dispatches and Muriel's diary entries. Each character is well constructed and likeable, even the conniving Ruby, who, desperately seeking a journalism career, can't even win a morale-boosting factory writing competition and is reduced to hosting a talent contest in which even the muffin-juggling Audrey and the trumpet-playing Florence participate.
The entire story reads like a radio drama of the time, complete with 1940s colloquialisms such as "swell" and "dilly." Lynes doesn't ignore the seriousness of the Second World War and Canada's sacrifices; her story has its share of tragedy, poverty, charity, bigotry, uncertainty and sobering reality, as depicted by signs dotted throughout Fort William Aviation that say things like "Buy Victory Bonds," "All This Could End Tomorrow" and "Stay Alert, Report Anything Unusual, No Matter How Small."
She does, however, tell a rollicking good tale that shows regular ol' Canadians making the best of the worst of times. It'll make you laugh and cry; it's a fictional slice of Canadian history about an ordinary boxcar manufacturing plant in Northern Ontario that won one of the biggest airplane commissions of the Second World War, the engineering pioneer who ran it and the motley cast of players who were drawn there for guaranteed employment and shelter while riding out the war.
The biggest bonus by far is Lynes's subtle introduction to one of the most interesting lines of women in our country, dating to the 19th century. Elizabeth McGill was indeed the first female airplane designer in Canada, her mother, Helen Gregory McGill, was B.C.'s first female judge and her grandmother was a suffragette. Lynes has written previously on the work of Canadian women during the war and clearly became enamoured. Instead of giving us a laboured account and biography of McGill, she invented an entertainment in the form of this inspired book.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto writer and television producer.