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Becoming Clementine

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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
Plume
Novel
368 pages

Here is a trailer for the book:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITReLYFmGUM

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At a recent book bloggers’ conference, I was delighted to learn of the existence of another blog with a focus on World War II: The Children’s War, an online journal about books for children and teenagers set in World War II. A recently reviewed title will be of particular interest to the readers awaiting So Much So Many So Few’s upcoming interview with Jennifer Niven, author of Becoming Clementine, due out in September.

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
More than anything else in the world, Ida Mae Jones, 18, wants to fly, but she can’t. Not because she doesn’t know how, oh no, Ida Mae knows how to fly. Her father had taught her how to fly his crop dusting plande long ago. She can’t fly because she doesn’t have a license and even though she did everything correctly during her flying test, the instructor refused to pass her on principle – she was a woman. But then the US enters World War II and for Ida Mae there will be no more flying even without a license with gas rationing.

But a new flying possibility opens up in 1943, when her younger brother Abel brings home an ad for female pilots in the new WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) program headed up by Jackie Cochran. Ida Mae gets very excited until she realizes two obstacles to joining the WASP program – she still doesn’t have a license and she is black and the program was only open to white women.

Ida Mae was pretty determined, though. For one thing, she was so fair that she could pass for white, though she had always chosen not to because it meant cutting herself off from friends and family completely. As for her license, well, Ida Mae was lucky enough to be named after her father, Iden Mahé, so it was a simple matter of changing the name on his license and replacing his photo with one of her own.

To read the rest, go to The Children’s War.

Nora Inayat Khan, code name Madeleine, a heroine of the SOE, killed in Dachau.

My cyber gal-pal Jennifer Niven has posted this link to an episode from the series “Secrets of War” about female spies during World War II.  Would I had seen it sooner. 

A book reference I can recommend on the same topic is A Life in Secrets:  Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, although it is not for the faint of heart.  (Nor was the British Special Operations Executive, who employed these women.)  Very moving, very heart-breaking.

Can’t wait for Jennifer’s latest, “Becoming Clementine,” which, I have the inside knowledge to tell you, is NOT about the wife of Winston Churchill.