At first, when I began to listen to Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce, I thought I might be diving into a new Brigitte Jones style “chick lit” book. Since these books are a guilty pleasure of mine I was not unhappy about it. Emmeline Lake has a job at a law office (solicitor) but she wants to be a journalist. She has not taken any journalism courses but there is war in England and wars are often crucibles that enable those who are brave enough to do things without credentials. These fast lanes tend to disappear in peacetime. Emmy has a best friend she calls Bunty who grew up nearby and has been her friend for years. They share a small apartment in town on the third floor of a house belonging to Bunty’s parents. Bunty’s parents are no longer living but her grandmother is.
Bunty works in the War Office with secret documents and Emmeline works at the fire station several evenings a week taking emergency calls during the frequent bombing runs from Germany (it’s “the blitz”). Almost everyone who can does war work. When Emmy answers an ad that looks like it is for a “junior” at a prominent London newspaper she believes that this will be her entry into journalism. She shares her various unrealistic but highly idealistic fantasies on this theme with us. We are entertained.
The novel Pearce writes ends up being not nearly as superficial as it seems in the beginning. The job at the paper actually involves working with a woman who is a real character, actually an old battle axe, as we used to say. She comes from wealth but she is a country woman with lots of dogs and a gruff manner. She is involved in a number of charities and she is connected to important people who have known her all their lives. She’s never endearing but she is a force. Her name is Henrietta Bird and she answers letters in a column for women who need advice, in a news sheet style magazine called Women’s Helper. People address their letters to Dear Mrs. Bird.
The magazine is in decline as Mrs. Bird is not exactly modern and refuses to answer any problems that involve topics like sex, or affairs, or divorce, or even menopause “Buck up and get on with things,” is her usual advice favorite. When Emmy goes to work for Mrs. Bird deciding which letters Mrs. Bird will answer, she has difficulty ignoring the letters that seem to cry out for exactly the kinds of advice Mrs. Bird will not give. Emmy’s decisions relative to Mrs. Bird’s neglect end up bringing about a crisis for Emmeline that is quite adult. The war also hits far too close to home.
Although I found this book a bit young for me, I enjoyed it anyway. And the writing, although not terribly literary, never got in the way of the story. The author makes living in England, at the time when it was being bombed to rubble on every clear night, accessible to those who might like to flesh out their high school history lessons. Since I listened to the book I should note that the whole narrative was read in a particular British accent we Americans enjoy very much.