The War Effort
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the interesting things about this time of year is that everyone is putting out their "best of" lists for the previous year, so you get to find out which books other people thought were really good but you havenít read. This is especially so if you happen to be a contributor to the Locus Year in Review process. And one of the books that got mentioned a lot by the Locus staff was The Narrows by Alexander C. Irvine. Given that I really liked A Scattering of Jades there was no choice really; I had to get it.
Of course the cause of my wallet was not helped by the fact that on picking up the book in Borders I noticed that the front cover blurb was by Jeffrey Ford. And that was quite appropriate, because if you want a "more like this" recommendation then Fordís work is a close match for The Narrows. Irvineís book is more upfront about its fantasy than The Girl in the Glass, but itís easy to talk about the book without mentioning fantasy at all.
The story is set in Detroit during WWII. The hero, Jared Cleaves, injured his right hand as a child and cannot hold a rifle, so the draft board has refused his pleas to let him join the troops. Instead he is helping the war effort by working in one of Henry Fordís many factories. It is a difficult time for a young, married couple. Jaredís wife ("a proper Rosie the Riveter," as her mother says) has a better job than he does. They work different shifts and so hardly see each other. Other people are always running Jared down because heís not out with the troops. And of course there are loads of pretty young women around who have recently lost their husbands. It is really only 2-year-old Emily who is keeping the family together. Irvine writes about the kid with the wry passion of someone who has young children himself. Clearly he loves kids, but also knows how they can drive you to distraction.
All of which would not be so bad if Jared was happy at work. But he is working on a secret project that he canít talk about. Heís actually doing far more for the war effort than anyone realizes. And consequently he has attracted the attention of German spies. They have a man in his project, but they canít get close to another new secret job that has started up in the factory where Jaredís wife, Colleen, works. The Germans think they can pressure Jared into getting Colleen to spy for them. US military intelligence wants Jared to go along with them to try to net the whole German spy ring. It is all very messy.
About the only respite Jared has is watching sports. Of course all of the Tigersí best players have been drafted, but there is baseball of a sort. The Red Wings are better. As Jaredís father points out, hockey is a game for drunken French-Canadian bruisers, and itís easy to avoid getting drafted if you are an alcoholic and have lost all your teeth.
Did I say this is a fantasy book?
Oh yes, Jared is working on a top-secret military project. The Ford production lines are hard at work pumping out anything that will help with the war effort. Jared works on what he and his colleagues call The Frankenline. Jared Cleavesí job is making golems.
As for the other secret project, you really donít want to know.
Even on the fantasy side, however, Irvine is never far from history. In particular he has picked up on the legend of the Nain Rouge. Thatís Red Dwarf in French. The Dwarf is an ugly little fellow with a devilish grin who appears just before some awful disaster is about to hit the city of Detroit. Irvine adds that the Dwarf has a habit of waving his genitals at people he appears to. (Is anyone thinking, "So thatís where they got the idea for Lister from?") Naturally Jared gets involved with the Dwarf. And that gets his spymasters in the Office of Esoteric Investigations very excited. Not to mention the Germans.
Along the way we also get flashbacks to Jaredís fatherís life as a traveling car salesman and whiskey runner during Prohibition. We get a glimpse of the racial tensions and management-union struggles of wartime Detroit. The Narrows is a good fantasy book. But it is also an excellent historical novel with some great characters. No wonder the Locus folks were enthusing about it.