Monday, June 22, 2009

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear
The First World War is in the distant past for most Americans, myself included. Despite its traumatic impact, Americans don't relate to it as a strong part of our history. More likely, we know plenty of facts about World War II, from our grandparents' experience, history projects, John Wayne movies, and "Medal of Honor".
But the effects of World War I were keenly felt in both Europe and America--as the immediate toll and as cultural ripples spreading out over the following decades. A friend even told me that, to this day, her English family wouldn't let her have red-and-white wedding flowers because of a World War I legacy that they represented the ominous image of "blood and bandages".
For Jacqueline Winspear's heroine, Maisie Dobbs, the First World War is only ten years behind her. In 1929, Maisie Dobbs is setting up her own private detective practice in London. Maisie is the daughter of a working-class widower, and in her teens had entered "into service" in the home of Lady Rowan. Thanks to her love of learning and Lady Rowan's progressives ideas, Maisie earns a place at Cambridge. But soon the war intrudes on everyday life, calling Maisie as a nurse to the front lines in France. Ten years later, Lady Rowan's son announces that he wishes to enter a private community for veterans with emotional trauma and disfiguring injuries. Something is suspicious about the secretive nature of the community, and Lady Rowan engages Maisie to inquire. This inquiry takes Maisie back into her wartime memories and brings her face to face with what she has lost.
This post-War period is a fascinating setting for Maisie Dobbs' adventures, the first in a series. During this time, British society, and American for that matter, saw sweeping changes. Women's fashions dared to show their arms and legs, women cut their hair, the automobile became commonplace, and moving pictures transmitted images to eager audiences. The economic landscape endured the Great Depression worldwide, changing the nature of occupations. One observation that is passed over quickly in the book is the slowing tradition of "going into service". This term indicated boys and girls, some in their early teens or younger, training as servants in homes of the wealthy and well-off middle-class. This livelihood faded in the interwar years, with the decline of large estates and the advent of labor-saving devices in the homes of those who could afford them.
These delightful mysteries are an interesting reminder of the fact of war on that (or our own) time and place--despite the fact that everyone wants to move on, Maisie's inquiries keep bringing her back to the heroism, trauma, and regret of the war years, and its hidden effects a decade later.

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