Summer, 1943. World War II has generated a population boom in Orange, Texas where its shipbuilders have been pressed into action supplying ships for the war effort. Suddenly, a town nearly desiccated by the Great Depression is so prosperous that there is not enough housing available for the families who have flocked to the area and secured jobs.
Bea Meade and her husband, Hal, are lucky to have secured one of the hastily-built, ramshackle houses set on landfill. Even though Bea knew it was a dump, she tried to console herself with the knowledge that they weren’t forced to live in a tent, as some families did. Hal had a good job at the shipyard, but he rarely brought home his full paycheck, so there were always bill collectors hounding them and they often paid their rent late, narrowly escaping eviction. With a four-month-old baby, Percy, to care for, Bea lived in a constant state of worry and loneliness. And for as long as she could remember, she had cried every night as soon as she turned the lights out. She never knew why, just about every night, her emotions overtook her.
The days and nights were long, but Bea was grateful that she did not have to work at the shipyard, as many women did. She had struck up a friendship with one neighbor, Masil, and looked forward to Saturday nights when everyone gathered in town. While the men played pool and drank inside Cherry’s Club, the women and children remained outside in the cars, enjoying the chance to visit with one another.
Bea has tried to be a good homemaker and wife to Hal, but he has never been affectionate, compassionate, or tender. And Masil feels compelled to tell her friend what everyone is gossiping about: Hal has been seen at work cavorting with a female coworker in his gantry. When Bea confronts him, he admits that he has fallen in love with Violet, a young woman from one of the richest and most powerful families in town. Worse, Violet is pregnant and Hal plan to divorce Bea and marry Violet in order to legitimize their unborn child.
Meanwhile, a handsome blond stranger, Oskar Eichel, has come to Orange in search of his brother, Wilhelm. After he takes a job at the shipyard, Hal takes him in as a temporary boarder until he can secure his own housing. Bea finds herself inexplicably drawn to the mysterious stranger who speaks with an unusual accent. She wonders where he has come from and why she finds herself behaving in a manner that is decidedly out of character whenever she is near him.
Author Sylvia Dickey Smith considers herself an “advocate for women.” Thus, she promises that her writing “features those who recreate themselves into the people they want to be, strong women who take charge of their lives and get things done.” In crafting the character of Bea Meade, Smith has certainly lived up to expectations.
This was my first experience reading Smith’s work, but it won’t be my last. A War of Her Own is an engrossing, well-structured tale about finding true strength within oneself. Smith explains that she was inspired to write the story by her own family history.
I was born and reared in Orange, and have always been fascinated by its rich history, particularly the war years when local shipyards obtained contracts with the Department of Defense to build warships. The sleepy little town exploded with people. I recall tales told by my mother of her years working at the shipyard. Desperate people caught in the backwater of the Great Depression flocked to the town and the population soared over 700 percent as a result of jobs-for-the-taking at the local shipyards.
. . . Gypsies camps settled outside of town around open campfires. Shantytowns sprang up to accommodate the severe housing shortage. Beds rented by the hour, the sheets still warm from one body when the next body crawled in.
Frenetic, hectic, and exhilarating.
Bea Meade came into the world in 1924 under unimaginably difficult circumstances and grew up in poverty. Raised in the Pentecostal church, she was taught by her God-fearing mother to be a good wife and mother. Even though she knew when she married Hal that she was making a mistake, she believed that she could make the marriage succeed. Now, at only 20 years of age, she has an unfaithful husband who is planning to leave her and their infant son for another woman. Bea has no idea what she is going to do in order to survive since her parents are both deceased and she cannot turn to her other family members for support.
“The focus of my writing is to first, tell a great story, and second, to help women pave their way to finding their voice.” ~ Sylvia Dickey Smith
Enter Bea’s neighbor, Masil, who helps Bea see that she has no choice other than to land a job at the shipyard. Masil even accompanies her to the plant so that she can submit her job application and, when she is hired immediately, helps her with childcare and appropriate clothing. Bea is so old-fashioned that she is even reluctant to wear trousers.
However, Bea gradually becomes empowered when she realizes that she can manage home and work. And when she excels at the shipyard and is promoted, her self-confidence increases proportionately. Bea is also assisted by her sister, Edith. Thirteen years Bea’s senior, Edith has been married and divorced a few times, and is considered a wild, eccentric woman. She plainly adores Bea and Percy, and wants them to be happy. Edith has carried a family secret with her for many years, and she knows that it must be revealed to Bea when the time is right. It involves Marie, the oldest sister, whom they see infrequently. Marie has been married to Sol, her childhood sweetheart, for many years. Living well in Galveston, Marie is childless, unhappy, and drinks too much. Eventually, after Edith tells Bea the truth about their family, Bea and Marie come face to face, and the meeting that the reader has, by that point in the story, anxiously anticipated, is not a disappointment. Rather, it provides a satisfyingly dramatic resolution to one aspect of Bea’s journey to understand who she actually is in order to envision the woman she wants to become.
Smith explores the theme of victim versus survivor — how chooses to be one or the other and the consequences of that choice — by deftly intertwining the lives of the female characters. Some, like Violet and Bea, have struggled with differing forms of adversity their entire lives. Their reactions to their circumstances are distinctly different, as well. The same can be said of Edith and Marie who, as young girls, experienced a life-altering event together, but allowed the episode to shape their futures in starkly divergent ways.
But the focus of the story remains at all times on Bea, the young woman who is waging several wars at once. While the United States battles its enemies, Bea finds herself at odds with Hal, her hapless husband who, in discovering he has been cruelly duped, starts out victimizing Bea, but winds up a victim himself. Bea is also fighting to understand and accept the truth about her past, which is rewritten when Edith finally reveals the circumstances of her birth and familial relationships. And her entire life, Bea has battled an unseen, unheard, mysterious demon — is it actually a part of her? — that compels her to inexplicably cry each night . . . but for what or whom does she cry?
The numerous plot twists — virtually nothing is as it initially seems — make it difficult to put the book down because you want to keep reading to see if your hunches are accurate. And while some of the characters are certainly more readily likable than others, as the truth about each one’s life is revealed, it becomes impossible not to root for them all because each, in her or her unique way, is flawed but realistically empathetic. That even goes for Hal, whose own metamorphosis into a strong, self-sufficient, compassionate man is hoped for, if not seen. It is especially applicable to Bea, who finds herself rescuing not just herself, but, eventually, Oskar and his brother, Wilhelm, as well.
I heartily recommend A War of Her Own.
I read A Memory Between Us in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.