Today, Remembrance Day, I want to share with you the work of an author, fellow blogger, fellow journalist, and new friend – and a person who writes movingly and with depth (and lots of researching) about the years of the Second World War. I think you will thank me for introducing you to Elinor Florence and her work.
But first, a little story about how it is that I got to know Elinor. You might not be surprised to hear that it was through Meanwhile, at the Manse! A little more than a year into this enterprise of mine to write about returning to the house I grew up in here in little Queensborough, she wrote a comment on one of my posts, introducing herself and saying that she too was interested in old houses. “I stumbled across your blog when I saw the photo of linoleum which was the same pattern as the kitchen covering in my grandfather’s house,” she told me. (I’m not sure now whether she was referring to this post or this one, but I loved that she found a nostalgic connection to the Manse’s old linoleum!)
That initial exchange became a conversation, both through comments here at Meanwhile, at the Manse and through emails. And soon I learned that Elinor, who lives in Invermere, B.C., was finishing a novel – her first – with a Second World War setting. And as she was finishing work on her book, she also started a blog, called Wartime Wednesdays, which you can find here (and see a photo of atop this post). There, every Wednesday, Elinor posts a story – a true story – from the war era. Many of her topics come from discoveries Elinor made and people she met while researching her novel. The stories are fascinating, and Elinor is a very fine writer, and if you’re even remotely interested in the wartime era – and even if you’re not, actually – I encourage you to check it out and follow it. I mean, how can you not be intrigued by a blog post with the headline “The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes”?
As it happens, that recent post is very much tied in to the subject matter of Elinor’s just-published novel, which is called Bird’s Eye View. It is the story of a young woman from rural Saskatchewan – the same background as Elinor has – who at the outbreak of war enlists in the Royal Air Force (because the Brits allowed women to enlist before the Canadians did, and Rose, the protagonist, is eager to do her part for the war effort). She finds herself working at a fascinating and still little-known operation (this really happened) where military personnel called interpreters studied aerial photos taken by Allied reconnaissance aircraft for signs of enemy installations and movements. The photo analysis was done using a tool called a stereoscope, which shows the photographic image in 3D – literally giving the viewer of aerial photos a bird’s-eye view. In the novel, Rose proves to be quite brilliant as a photo interpreter, and that brilliance is modelled on the real-life brilliance of Constance Babington Smith, the subject of the blog post in question (which you can read here, and which I urge you to do; what a life, and what a story!).
Raymond and I were lucky enough to finally meet up with Elinor in person a few weeks ago, when she was in Toronto doing promotional work for Bird’s Eye View. Over tea in fine china cups, dainty sandwiches and scones with jam and clotted cream at the Royal York, we enjoyed swapping stories of our careers as journalists and our shared interest in old houses and vintage finds. Here we are at tea, Elinor in the centre:
I happily asked her tons of questions about her research about women in the war and the photo-interpretation operation; Elinor is now, thanks to all that research, a mine of information on those subjects. We had a delightful visit.
I came away with a signed copy of Bird’s Eye view, which I finished reading a few days ago. It is a fascinating portrayal of life during wartime from the perspective of an ordinary (though very smart) Canadian farm girl caught up in extraordinary events and times. I enjoyed it all, but was particularly moved by a section toward the end of the novel when Rose and all the world learn of the end of the war. The picture Elinor paints of what it was like to be in London – London, which had suffered so much – on VE Day, the wild elation mixed with sadness at all the loss, is beautifully detailed and very moving. There were tears on my cheeks as I read it; and this evening, as I read aloud that same passage as part of a Remembrance Day talk I was invited to give to the Harts-Riggs Women’s Institute, I am pretty sure there were tears in several pairs of eyes in the room.
So there you are. Remembrance Day is not a day for gifts, but because it’s the right day to do it, tonight I offer readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse the gift of some well-told history and lovely writing. From my blog friend Elinor.