Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (2008)

The Second World War has been boiled down into romanticized jam, particularly the Battle of Britain.  You know that story - stiff upper lip, sheltering in the tube, child evacuees, Queen Elizabeth saying "I can look the East End in the face," Edward R. Murrow.  You know, this:

The stories in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, are like chunks of strawberries in that jam, even  there's no physical destruction of bombed building and mayhem and wounded civilians.  There is plenty of small destruction, as the war and its long arm destroys families, marriages, affairs, and ways of life.  Mollie Panter-Downes was a prolific writer for The New Yorker:  according to the biography at the end, she published "852 pieces in the magazine..." including "poems, short stories, London Letters, book reviews, profiles, Letters from England, Far Flung Correspondent Pieces, Reporter at Large coverage, Onward and Upward with the Arts columns, and numerous one-off articles."  That's pretty amazing.  Of the short stories in this book, only two have been previously published outside their initial running in the magazine.

Although these stories are fiction, but also have a touch of "on the ground" - they were being written as great events were happening all around Panter-Downes - the start of the war, the phony war, Dunkirk, The Blitz, Pearl Harbor, D-Day.  So although the stories are all have a charm and simplicity about them - the problems of living with evacuated strangers, a mistress contemplating her married lover's demise, absent husbands -- constantly hovering over them are great events.  Hitler could invade and destroy these simple lives at any moment; bombs could drop; but life goes on.  There is a touch of propaganda to these stories then, the same fingerprint that marks Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca.  That doesn't make them any less enjoyable or beautiful though. 

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-DownesGood Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter-Downes

If the Battle of Britain and the Blitz has been boiled down into sentimentalized, romanticized jam with large chunks of Edward R. Murrow, and Queen Elizabeth's "I can look the East End in the face,"and Saint Paul's stark against the smoke of fires from bombs, then Molly Panter-Downes stories certainly are part of that jam as well; they should be a better known part, but all but two of these stories had never appeared anywhere outside their initial publication in The New Yorker in the 1940s. This is propaganda, like Mrs. Miniver or Casablanca, but charming, often funny, occasionally poignant and sad propaganda. War is hell; but in these stories the hell is heartache for a missing lover, or the petty annoyances of strange evacuees living in your house in the country for four years. What I particularly liked about this book is the "on the ground" feel of the stories; these pining wives and mistresses, old ladies knitting and old servants aghast at Canadian soldiers all seemed so real. Panter-Downes wasn't writing these stories from memories stored up years later; she was writing them as the war happened around her. There isn't casualties and mayhem and bloody bombs; there is very real people facing the war in various and sundry ways. It's not a period piece though; the stories still have the power of resonance even today.

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