Winnipeg Free Press Review - Factory Voice

Winnipeg Free Press
Reviewed by: Bev Sandell Greenberg

In the 1940s, thousands of Canadian women shouldered the responsibilities of non-traditional jobs to compensate for the men who were off fighting the Second World War. In her debut novel, Nova Scotia-based poet Jeanette Lynes portrays the era of Rosie the Riveter in a vibrant tale about the intertwined lives of four female employees at an aircraft plant. The story takes place in Fort William (now Thunder Bay) from 1941 to 1945.

At the outset, the aircraft factory is in a state of upheaval. The test planes keep crashing for some unknown reason, and several prisoners have escaped from a nearby detention camp. In short order, we meet the four protagonists: Muriel, the newly arrived chief engineer: Ruby, the beautiful but haughty head stenographer: Audrey, a teenage runway: and Florence, a homely trainee. The plot heats up when Roper McLaughlin, a Scottish intelligence officer is ought in to oversee security at the plant, and foul play is discovered. Ruby then tries to manipulate Audrey, but the attempt backfires. Amorous relationships develop among the male and female employees, but so do jealousies, some with dire consequences.

Written in crisp, succinct prose, the narrative consists of four sections told by the main characters in alternating viewpoints. 'Muriel would recognize the paint shop if she came through here blindfolded. She has a superb nose: it sorts, without difficulty, the various smells of flight. She fills her lungs with oxide primer, hot raw linseed oil, chromate primer, lacquer and enamel. She loves oxide primer best, and if she could dab it behind her ears she would. But the world, she suspects, isn't ready for "industrial-smelling ladies.'

Interspersed in each section are several editions of the gossipy in-house newsletter The Factory Voice, offering juicy tidbits about the plant and its workers. Throughout the novel, Lynes' meticulous research contributes much to the historical background, especially in terms of the war, political subversives and the attitudes of women. Details about aviation and airplane assembly help authenticate the story as well. Equally impressive is Lynes' ability to create complex characters. Though disabled by polio, Muriel is compassionate, logical and quietly determined in her job. One of the most compelling scenes involves her test flight on one of the new planes -- a life-threatening experience. Yet Muriel's romantic interests underscore her vulnerability and questionable past. Another case in point is Audrey, a spunky yet nave girl eager to escape the farm. Under Muriel's guidance, she blossoms into a confident young woman with strong moral convictions. To some extent, she resembles the protagonist Gwen in Late Nights on Air, the Giller Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Hay.

Entertaining and incisive, The Factory Voice is a richly imagined story that captures a significant page from the history of Canadian women in the workplace. At the same time, it marks a fine fiction debut for Lynes.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

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