I’ve recently discovered Barbara Pym’s books and to my delight, I found that several are available on e-audio books from my local library. So, I’m going through them at a fairly good speed.
1950’s British housewife Wilmet is turning 33 and has time in her life for drama. Her husband, Rodney, a dashing Army major when she met him in the war while serving as a WREN, has now settled into a routine Civil Service job. Their home life is cozy with just his mother sharing the house with them. No children have happened. She is involved in her church and community and does not seem to mind much about being childless, but she is obviously rather bored. Enter Piers, the needy brother of a friend, who starts to fill some of her time. Piers’ own home life is a bit mysterious. He lives in a house that is somewhat divided into apartments but with bathroom and kitchen and phone shared. Today, Piers’ situation seems obvious but does fantasy-living Wilmet ever look at reality?
I love the way Pym portrays ordinary life. She spices things up here and there with a few interesting characters like the man who steals things but gives them back and his employer who accepts this fact. I like, too, that in the three books I’ve read so far, the Church of England is prominent and someone is always going over to the Catholics or “to Farm Street” [to the holy-of-holies, the Jesuits0. Amusing. This time a spice added is an evening Portuguese course! No wonder t.v. took off!
Mary Sherman Morgan grew up on what New York writers like to call a “hardscrabble” farm in North Dakota. The nearest school was so distant that the state bought her a horse to ride to school and to escape her abusive father and brothers. With those two popular female heroine traits, “grit” and “pluck,” Mary makes it out of N.D. to a college in Ohio that “isn’t exactly Harvard,” where luck and a shortage of labor in World War II propels her into a job as a chemist though she hasn’t yet earned a degree.
Fast forward to the Space Race years and Werner von Braun and his rocket scientists. Mary, stuck in a job as an analyst (an engineer without a degree) ends up solving the fuel problem for launching America’s first successful, though unnamed, satellite.
This alone is all interesting enough for a book to be written, but her son discovers she hid a lot of secrets and did her best not to be remembered by history. The why is what makes it all so intriguing. (Hint: She wasn’t a spy for the Soviets or anything like that! )
Mary amazed me so many times! I’d have given anything to have had the state of Indiana dump a horse in my yard and say “Tell Mr. S and Bus 23 good-bye. This little Arab mare is your new ride to school.” That horse was partly because the North Dakota Depression-era Child Protective Services (whatever they were called back then) did their job. A Catholic priest also did the right thing in helping her. She made it in spite of the sort of odds that today we think guarantee a kid a one-way ticket to drugs and prison. Yet though no one gave her new backpack full of school supplies, or provided free breakfast and lunch, and though she started school later in life than the other children, Mary grew up to do amazing things.
This book grew from a play Mary’s son did about her life. That play and this book were both a labor of love.