Fly North Review - The Factory Voice

Reviewed by: David Kemp

Interest in the wartime activities of Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William and the people who worked there continues to be high. Two books, published in the last several months, consider quite different aspects of these topics. One is a biography of Elsie MacGill (reviewed in Fly North, volume 1, number 1) and the other a fictional account of an aircraft factory - an imaginary Can-Car - in northewestern Ontario. 

The author of the latter is Jeanette Lynes, a professor of English at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, but formerly of Lakehead University, where she worked with members of the Women's Studies program to research the role of women workers at Can-Car. Thus, she brings to her novel a strong background knowledge of the area and the activities of the women aircraft workers, all of which comes through in her writing.

In the book, we are introduced to four women representing those who could have worked at Can-Car in the heyday of its aircraft production, from Muriel McGregor, the female chief of engineering - obviously, based on Elsie McGill - to Audrey Foley, the girl from Saskatchwan who left her home on the Prairies for the excitement of work in an aircraft factory, only to end up pushing the snack trolley around the plant. In addition, there is Florence Voutilainen, a riveter under suspicion because her mother is a Red Finn, and Ruby Kozak, the company's chief stenographer. The supporting male cast includes the plant manager, a crusty test pilot, and a chief of security involved with subversives outside the plant. One of these subversives, Thaddeus Brink, has escaped from an internment camp somewhere along the north shore and has made his way to Fort William where it is expected he might try to sabotage the plant. As an added twist he is a long time friend of the chief engineer from their time as teenagers in Vancouver.

All of these characters and their activities are introduced through the company newsletter - The Factory Voice - which provides the book's title. The Voice is produced by Ruby Kozak, who, as well as being a stenographer, dreams of being a newspaper reporter and making it in the wider media world. Always on the lookout for the big story, she has to be content with her regular supply of human interest pieces until finally her big break comes when she exposes the duplicity of the chief of security using information supplied by her spy in the plant - the snack trolley girl. As the war comes to an end, activity at the plant slows down and the individuals begin to make their decisions for the future. The riveter and the snack trolley girl stay on at the plant to build buses; Ruby moves out into the newspaper world while the chief engineer and the test pilot fly off into the sunset together.

These personal stories, are set into a background that includes activities in the plant and test flights from Bishopsfield as well as noted Fort William landmarks such as Chappele's Department Store and Winston Hall Apartments - the latter with the subtle name changed to 'Churchill' in this fictional account. The book mixes humour, pathos and tragedy, all woven into a fast-moving, very readable version of what it might have been like to work in a wartime aircraft plant in the north west. Jeanette Lynes provides a credible reacreation of the setting and even the language rings true. Although no doubt there are some places where the truth is stretched a bit, local readers with some knowledge of the time and place will be able to identify with much of what she has written. The aviation enthusiast will probably find lots to question. The Hurricanes of Can-Car have become Mosquitoes, for example, and in the period covered by the story, Bishopsfield was no longer the company's main test facility. However, this is a fictional account of a very interesting period in the history of the Lakehead and even where the story is tweaked a bit, the results are well within the degree of 'poetic licence' allows writers of fiction.

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