Wednesday, February 4, 2009

With A High Heart
Adele de Leeuw
1945, The Macmillan Company

The weather was unseasonably warm for late May, and even this early in the morning there was a leaden quality to the air. Her hair stuck to her neck, her fresh cotton print was mussed from the crowded bus trip, and her newly laundered white gloves had a black streak across the palm where she had clutched the handrail.

It's a steamy New Jersey summer, and librarian-in-training Anne McLane is angrily headed to her first day working at the shabby little rural library in Tilden instead of the gleaming state-of-the-art facility in Claredon. Furious at the assignment, she resists the job at first but soon her natural competitiveness and drive reassert themselves over the summer. These qualities also make her question her romance with easy-going Lt. Rex Elliott, whose lack of ambition troubles her, particularly compared to hard-working farmer Matthew English.

What's the use of planning?" he demanded. "People plan like mad... and what happens? Along comes a war, or something equally catastrophic, and where are their plans? Knocked into a cocked hat. Nope, it's better to drift along with the stream. If it throws you up on some pleasant shore, O.K. If not--" There was a shrug in his voice. "At least you aren't disappointed.

Rex, so light-hearted on the surface and so cynical underneath, won't do for our heroine, who burns to accomplish something. So even though she resents young English for lecturing her, she loves his matching interest in remaking the world. Which will of course require remaking, if the war ever ends. It dominates their lives in a kind of dull, endless way, with gas shortages and ration boards and the sheer numbers game of men.

And one librarian, the indifferent Rilla, has an airman fiance who is, inevitably, killed in action.

No one even knew that the telephone had rung until Rilla's piercing shriek cut through the air, stilling their laughter as if they had been stabbed.

Rilla's goal in life was to marry and have a family; with her love stolen from her, she's devastated. Anne's thoughtful about that, sympathetic but secretly thinking that this re-emphasizes to her the importance and meaning of work, that work could fill the place of people.

For a woman whose contemplations on a friend who's lost her lover is that it's too bad she doesn't have work to sustain her, Anne's pretty good at scooping up the available men in a time when men are thin on the homeground. She starts the book with Rex, an officer stationed at Fort Kilmer (Dix), and ends up with Matthew, a farmer exempt from soldiering. In between, she ferrets away at her job with the avidness of a Lutheran working his way toward heaven.

Anne decides between her men, befriends a blinded veteran, discovers the value of her shabby little library and realizes the true potential of the mousy little librarian who is actually nicknamed Mouse. Despite my mockery, it's a pretty good book. Anne's a strong, intelligent character, the writing evokes a lost rural New Jersey and an America on the verge of becoming a superpower, and the ending satisfies.

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