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Those Angry Days


Anyone who finds today’s political climate too divisive and longs for the civility of earlier times would be well-served by full immersion in historian Lynne Olson’s most recent venture, Those Angry Days, which chronicles in lively, absorbing detail the climate in the United States in the two years before it entered the war.  As in her earlier, excellent Citizens of London:  The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour, Olson presents a vast, compelling cast of characters full of passionate conviction.  Front and center are the men of the title:  Franklin Roosevelt who, though derided by his enemies as a “dictator,” was often  worryingly reliant on public opinion as parsed for him by the pollsters, and Charles Lindbergh, a proud, private man who could not keep himself out of the limelight except when he was 10,000 feet above it.

As countries swiftly fell to Hitler, leaving only England as the last hope of freedom in Europe, Americans faced the critical question of what the role of the nation was to be in this turbulent world.  The isolationists argued that Britain and France (who had dragged us into World War I, which was supposed to have made the world safe for democracy and had instead cost 50,000 American lives) had “repeatedly demonstrated an inability to settle their own disputes . . . we must be ready to fight for the defense of our own nation, but for nothing and no one else.”  The interventionists held that too much was at stake for America to evade its international responsibility:  Hitler was intent on world domination and we would face him eventually, and how could we stand by as Nazi Germany “threatened to wipe out Western civilization as we know it?”

“As momentous as it was, the passionate prewar battle over America’s destiny has largely disappeared from the national memory,” Olson writes, and goes on to quote General George Marshall:  “People have forgotten the great hostility of that time.”

How hostile was it?  A debate over conscription came to blows on the floor of the House of Representatives.  During the presidential campaign of 1940, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie was “pelted with everything from rotten eggs, fruits, vegetables, rocks and lightbulbs to an office chair and wastebasket . . . The New York Times ran a daily box score of the number of items thrown and those that found their target.”

As aid to Britain was eked out both by private committees and cautious, narrow legislation (the Destroyers for Bases act, the Lend-Lease act), coalitions opposing Roosevelt’s foreign policy sprang up across the country.  The most prominent one was founded at Yale, where students including Mayflower descendent Kingman Brewster (future U.S. ambassador to Britain), Sargent Shriver (future head of the Peace Corps), McGeorge Bundy (future National Security Advisor), and Potter Stewart (future Supreme Court justice) founded America First to provide a “rallying point for resistance” against “being stampeded into war by the Roosevelt administration.”  America First’s somewhat elitist origins were given huge financial support by the captains of industry who made their fortunes providing for middle America – men like Sterling Morton (of the salt), Jay Hormel (of the meat), Henry Ford, and the founder of Quaker Oats.  The darling and spokesman of America First was Charles Lindbergh, whose speeches at their rallies attracted thousands of supporters and protesters.

When war finally was declared, Lindbergh’s offer of services was initially shunned by both the military and private industry, who were afraid of being associated with him.  Henry Ford took him on as a technical consultant; Lindbergh advised on the B-52 and the P-47 fighters.  Eventually, he served as a civilian consultant in the Pacific without the knowledge of the White House.  As a civilian combatant, he flew fifty combat missions while “squadron leaders . . . looked the other way.”

Lindbergh is merely the most prominent “character” in this history which includes deft, thorough portrayals of Wendell Willkie, the British ambassador Lord Lothian, Robert McCormick, the Anglophobic publisher of the Chicago Tribune, J. Edgar Hoover who, at Roosevelt’s orders, launched his phone-tapping career by targeting isolationists, and the sophisticated yet naïve, suffering yet oblivious Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Olson’s prodigious research is matched only by her intellectual curiosity.  This is a hefty tome but well worth the read; you couldn’t possibly be in better hands.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II
Lynne Olson
History, Random House, 2013
576 pages


Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path


The work of British playwright Terence Rattigan has been receiving a tremendous amount of renewed interest prompted by the celebration of his centennial.

Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path will be the first U.S. production of the play since its Broadway debut in 1943.

Flare Path is set in 1940 in a country hotel near a RAF airfield in Lincolnshire, UK. As the Messerschmitts circle above, actress Patricia Graham is forced to chose between two men: her old flame, the handsome movie star Peter Kyle; or her Flight Lieutenant husband, Teddy Graham, whom she married after a “whirlwind war romance.” Will she chose love or duty? 

Director Robin Witt was kind enough to share her production notes with somuchsomanysofew: 

“Terence Rattigan knew he wanted to be a playwright from a young age. When he was a boy, an aunt—a former Gaiety Girl—introduced him to the joys of theatre. When Rattigan attended what we Americans would consider middle school, he read every play in his school’s well-stocked library. While at Oxford in the early 1930s, he wrote for university and fringe theatre. Impatient for his writing career to begin in earnest, he made a deal with his diplomat, non-theatre-going father: Terence could quit Oxford, and his father would support him for two years; if Terence couldn’t succeed as a playwright in those two years, he would give up on a career in theatre and procure a “proper job.”

Rattigan had to wait longer than two years for his first real success as a playwright. After failing to set the theatrical world on fire, Rattigan was working a desk job at Warner Bros. UK, when impresario Bronson Albery decided to produce Rattigan’s French Without Tears at the Criterion in London’s West End. It was 1936, and the light comedy set in a French ski resort was an enormous financial hit for the 25-year-old playwright. Rattigan immediately quit his day job, moved into fancy digs in Mayfair, and lived the kind of artsy lifestyle he had always longed for. Later in life, Rattigan stated that he blew all his royalties from French Without Tears at gambling tables in France.

Although the fluffy French Without Tears was a commercial success, Rattigan was desperate to be considered a serious playwright. For the next two years, however, he suffered from a terrible bout of writer’s block. Hoping to find a cure, in 1938 he began to be treated by an Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Newman. Newman proved to be a Svengali-like character who suggested, that to cure his writer’s block, Rattigan should join the Royal Air Force at once. Why Rattigan, who was a pacifist, a homosexual, and technologically inept, would agree to join the über-masculine RAF with its technologically challenging recruit training system, was perplexing to all of his friends.

But Newman’s advice would prove astute. Not only did Rattigan finish seventh out of forty-four in his RAF training class, his writer’s block disappeared as well. During the Battle of Britain, on a layover at a UK airfield, Air Gunner Rattigan began the first draft of Next of Kin, whichwould later become Flare Path. Over the North Sea, Rattigan’s aircraft was shot by a German fighter plane. With the loss of one of its engines, it became imperative that the five-man crew lighten its load to conserve fuel. Each member of the crew was asked to throw all non-essential items into the sea. Rattigan ripped the pages of Flare Path out of his notebook, stuffed them in his jacket, and threw the notebook overboard. The aircraft landed safely with only two minutes of fuel left.

Flare Path opened in London on August 13, 1942, during the blitz. A recorded announcement preceded each performance that informed the audience where the nearest bomb shelter was located. Rattigan reminisced later, that although bombs fell quite near the theatre, that the audience was stalwart:

 Never once, incidentally, did I see a single member of the audience leave to take shelter. And the actors—like all actors, bless their hearts—would have continued to act until literally blown into Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw Flare Path in 1943, he stated that he was “very much moved by this play.  It is a masterpiece of understatement…but we are rather good at that, aren’t we.” Flare Path ran for almost 700 performances.

Rattigan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Newman, attended 250 consecutive performances of Flare Path and documented his experience in a book called 250 Times I Saw a Play, or Authors, Actors, and Audience. Newman was committed to an insane asylum in 1947, where he later died. Air Gunner Rattigan was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and after the war, he went on to write many other plays. Terence Rattigan was knighted by the Queen in 1971 for services to the theatre.”

Robin Witt
December 2012

Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path runs at Theatre Wit in Chicago from January 5 through February 24, 1013.


Robin Witt is a theatre director and an artistic associate at both Griffin and Steep Theaters in Chicago. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University, and a BFA New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. Robin is an Assistant Professor of Directing at UNC Charlotte and she calls both Charlotte and Chicago “home.”

For a more extensive tour of Terence Rattigan, his work, life and influence, follow this journey with the always-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch:



Garden of Stones

Garden of Stones

Garden of Stones switches from a modern-day (1978) murder investigation to a setting in the Japanese relocation camps, the flashbacks being the majority of the action. As with so much WWII fiction, the story opens in December 1941. From this the reader should know what to expect.

An only child of a well-off Japanese family, US-born Lucy Takeda is so privileged that she conceals the extent of her doll collection and dresses from the other girls in the eighth grade.  Her father, much older than her frail and damaged, yet famously beautiful, mother, Miyako, owns an importing business. We have just a few days to get to know the Takedas before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Immediately, families are required to burn their heirlooms, lose their businesses, and sell their remaining possessions for cents on the dollar. Lucy’s father had just died and was spared this humiliation. Lucy, fourteen and on the road to inheriting her mother’s beauty, is sent to the Manzanar camp with her mother, a suitcase each.  There, they are at the mercy of American overseers, living in rundown, quickly built, vermin-ridden barracks with all the usual inadequacies of food, heat, plumbing, and privacy. Everything beautiful has been taken away from them. Manzanar was famously harsh, beginning with the climate. 

For the internees, there is always the hope that the war will end and indeed, as time goes on, some Japanese are allowed to leave, either to enlist or work in the war effort or in agriculture. After a series of tragedies and injustices, Lucy begs to be allowed to leave for a job, and goes from the rundown and abusive conditions of the camp to the unpleasantly named, abusive Sloats who own a rundown motel.  Mrs. Sloat’s brother also lives there, a disabled veteran who teaches Lucy an odd trade, and who greets her, not at all unusually for that time, with “You can go to hell. You and every other Nip left on this planet.”  Everyone at the motel is disabled, bitter, and legally bound to each other one way or another.

This job was supposed to be an escape, a way to put the pain of her mother’s death behind her; instead, she found herself right back in the crossfire of human emotion. Was there nowhere on earth for Lucy to escape, to start a life free of anguish?

What is the garden of stones: the traditional Japanese rock garden that Lucy envisions in both bleak places she lives, or the group of damaged people who have allowed physical deformities to form scar tissue over their humanity?

Refreshingly, this book is not an anti-internment screed, but one that uses that setting to discuss the lives of the formerly beautiful and whole. Nor does it judge by revisionist standards the wisdom of the swift and harsh relocation. Even the odd hobby that Lucy learns involves trying to recapture the beauty of a living thing.  It is further a discussion of mothers will go to to protect their daughters, and how it sometimes takes generations to end the cycle of violence.

The modern-day sections serve to resolve and reveal the injustices of the past. Woven through Garden of Stones as well are such contemporary concerns—for us, if not in 1978—as the ease of buying a gun, power-mad military men, distrust of immigrants, and abuse of young boys.

Guest reviewer:  Christine Frank 

Garden of Stones
Sophie Littlefield
Harlequin MIRA
320 pages





WWII-era Love Letters Wash Ashore in Sandy Aftermath

Interview with Jennifer Niven

I recently finished Becoming Clementine (review below) and had a few questions for the author, who was gracious enough to “stop by” somuchsomanysofew to chat about writing, womanhood and war. 

As a writer, I’m uncomfortable with the question I’m about to ask you, but as a reader, I must:  what inspired Velva Jean?  Was it the time and place?  The community, the characters, the building of the Scenic Highway?

Velva Jean was first born in a short story of my mother’s.  After paying her $1.00 for the rights, I wrote a short film script—Velva Jean Learns to Drive—while a student at the American Film Institute.  The screenplay was awarded the Colin Higgins Screenwriting Award, and the film went on to win an Emmy.  I always knew I wanted to do more with the story—to revisit it and expand it—adding in some family history from my Appalachian ancestors.

I originally wrote the first Velva Jean book because I’d carried her around with me, in my heart and head, since film school.  I wrote the first book and the second book because I wanted to read them.  I also wanted to pay homage to the daring girls who appeared in their own adventure stories of the 1920s and 1930s, inspiring girls like Constance Kurridge and Flyin’ Jenny, who were comic book heroes.  These were young women who spied and flew and acted and sang and fought crime and bad guys and fell in love and did exactly what they wanted to do and were well ahead of their time.  I thought it was time for another series along those lines, one that women and girls of all ages (and men and boys too) could enjoy and, hopefully, feel inspired by.

Thanks to our friend the internet, I know that you come from a lineage of independent women, from your mother, the biographer and memoirist Penelope Niven, to (and this was a fun find), your ancestor, the Revolutionary War figure Jane Black Thomas.  One of the most endearing qualities of Velva Jean, for me at least, is her selfless and resolute sense of purpose.  “This needs to be done; how can I help get it done?”  Whether it’s personal – learning to drive to get to the Grand Ole Opry – or inspired by “the right thing to do” —  volunteering to fly where no woman has gone before in Becoming Clementine.  How was (if she was) Velva Jean shaped from your legacy?

 The women in my family have spied in the Revolutionary War, run plantations and defied various enemies during and after the Civil War, raised ten or twelve or fourteen children on their own, flown planes, taught school, run organizations large and small, written books, and been crowned beauty queens.  So Velva Jean hails from a long line of strong Southern women who believe nothing is insurmountable, that you should always dream as big as possible, and that you can be or do anything you want to be or do.  They also believe you can and should be a good, kind, gracious person while surmounting and dreaming and doing and being. 

To see Velva Jean grow, in the pages of my mom’s short story, from the girl who teaches herself to drive in order to take her daddy to the doctor, to the girl dreaming of Nashville in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, to the determined and fearless pilot in Velva Jean Learns to Fly, to a war hero in Becoming Clementine has been rewarding and thrilling and, at times, exhausting.  I often feel as if I’m living her adventures with her, and sometimes I think:  Velva Jean and I need to lie down and rest for a while!  But we keep going because there is so much for her to do still, and so many places for her—for us—to go.  Through all these adventures, it’s been fascinating for me to witness, as the author, the ways in which she’s grown and changed that I hadn’t anticipated or planned.  One of the things that has been the most remarkable to me about this entire process is how often our lives parallel each other, often without my realizing it until much later.  It makes the experience, and Velva Jean’s evolution as a person, even more personal, because in her I can see my own evolution as well.

Tell us something about the research for Becoming Clementine.

Two particular women did much to inspire and inform Velva Jean’s story—Hélène Deschamps, a member of the French Resistance who was later recruited by the OSS, and Virginia D’Albert-Lake, an American in Paris who worked for the Resistance while also helping to free Allied airmen on the Freedom Line. I was also fortunate to get to know Dr. Margaret Emanuelson, a former agent of the OSS, who was generous in sharing her vast knowledge and the memories of her experiences.

Although this is a novel, I have examined numerous resources and conducted extensive research in an effort to make the events, the setting, and the period as authentic as possible. Perhaps the greatest resources were the members of the OSS Society and its president, Charles Pinck, and Roy Tebbutt and the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum (a.k.a. the Harrington Aviation Museum), in Harrington, England. Espionage expert Linda McCarthy, founding curator of the CIA Museum, was a terrific resource as well. I also owe much to the comprehensive (and recently declassified) National Archives and Records Administration OSS Collection, and the Churchill Archives Centre.

In your research for Becoming Clementine, was there anything you found particularly striking about conditions or activities in wartime London and France?

This is such a little detail, but when I was researching wartime Paris, I loved reading that many of the local women began wearing flowers in their hair as not only an effort to bring color into that very grim, unsettling, often terrifying existence, but as a quiet act of defiance.  I think it was these quiet little acts in particular that struck and impressed me most—the small ways in which the citizens of occupied Paris retaliated against the Germans.

The books (Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Becoming Clementine) follow hard on one another’s heels – in the sense that a plane taking off at the end of one book is still in mid-air at the beginning of the next.  Did you envision a longer storyline when you were writing the first Velva Jean book? 

I actually envisioned the first book ending with Velva Jean learning to fly.  I always thought she would liberate herself from her husband and mountain life by working at a bomber factory in Atlanta, and that the book would end with her becoming a WASP.  But the more I wrote, the more I discovered that the journey in the first book really ended with her learning to drive an old yellow truck, and then driving that truck away from her husband and family and the only home she’d ever known as she went in pursuit of her dreams.  I realized flying was an entirely different adventure.

I guess I’m asking, was Velva Jean always going to play a part in WWII?

I always knew she would come of age during the war, but originally I saw her as a pilot, as a WASP.  At first I didn’t really see beyond that.  Then I started thinking, what if she became a spy…

And . . . you fly?

Unfortunately, I don’t!  But I would love to.  Just as I would love to be a spy working for the OSS and a Hollywood movie star in the 1940s (the subject of the fourth Velva Jean novel, which I’m at work on now).  As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one.  I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.  In that way, I get to fly, to spy, etc. 

That said, don’t be surprised if you see me in the sky one day, just like Velva Jean…

Available September 25 from amazon or IndieBound.

Becoming Clementine


At the end of Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Velva Jean Hart, a newly-minted pilot, takes off from her training camp, bound for England.  The beginning of Becoming Clementine finds her still in mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean.  Author Niven, with the born storyteller’s knack for picking up where she’s left off, brings us immediately on board.  We begin:

They said the B-17 had mythical powers, that it was magic because it could defend itself, even with the pilot knocked cold and no one at the wheel, and that it could return home even if it was blown apart.  It was the fiercest fighter of the war, the Flying Fortress, a daylight precision bomber that flew smooth for being so big and heavy – as smooth as Three Gum River, back home in North Carolina, on a sunny cloudless day . . .[ellipsis mine]. . . I was dressed in my Santiago Blues, the official uniform of the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots with a smart little hat and a fitted navy skirt designed by Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and I had a .45 pistol strapped to my hip.

We’re still on page 1, mind you … in fact, we’re only in the second paragraph.  But we have established time, place, peril, and voice.  We know our narrator is a brave, strong woman, young because she is deferential enough to refer to the “they” who describe the B-17 even though she is the one flying it, and strong because the plane is “fierce” and “big and heavy.” She is prone to a poetic turn of phrase, credulous of myth, not above appreciating a flattering cap but still, packing heat.  While pinpointing the place in history, Niven has also foreshadowed danger and given way to a sneeze of nostalgia for home.  If I taught fiction, I would use this book. 

Lest the pink cover and the occasional folksy references put you off, give it ten pages – give it five – and you will be under its spell.  Niven is not just a masterful storyteller but an engaging writer who can evoke shivers in the damp, dangerous  fog of the French countryside.  The two predecessors in this series were Velva Jean Learns to Drive and Velva Jean Learns to Fly and in those books the heroine did indeed teach herself to do what she needed to do in order to accomplish what she needed to get done.  Here, she “becomes,” although throughout her oeuvre she has always been “becoming” someone – most of her friends have christened her with their own nickname, a demonstration of how multi-faceted she is.  You don’t need to have read the earlier books to appreciate this one, but once you have finished it (in one or two sittings), you will want to. 

Crash-landing behind enemy lines in Occupied France, Velva Jean “becomes” Clementine Roux in order to help the OSS and the French Resistance.  As in the other novels, she is marginalized, belittled, scolded, ignored, condescended to, frightened, courageous, and resourceful.  In other words, she is a woman in the war.  But more than that, she is a WASP in the war and this novel, among all its other attributes, pays tribute to their largely unrecognized service. 

Becoming Clementine
Jennifer Niven
368 pages

Here is a trailer for the book:

The Beachmaster

This is what we’re about.  Thank you, Joe Vaghi.