Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Edie Ernst, USO Singer-- Allied Spy

Edie Ernst USO Singer—Allied Spy by Brooke McEldowney (741.5 MCE Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

Juliette rushes to the hospital after learning her elderly, cantankerous mother, Edna O’Malley, had collapsed. She finds Edna to be her usual irascible self, but then Edna surprises Juliette by asking, “Did I ever tell you how I met and fell in love with your father?” Juliette replies, “I never heard you use the word ‘love’ in the same sentence, for that matter in the same hemisphere, with any mention of Dad.” Edna then proceeds to tell her daughter about her youth. She was Edie Ernst, a young, idealistic USO singer during World War II. She remembers her first meeting with Lt. Bill O’Malley, but not exactly what she said. It was enough to have her summoned to meet a colonel who wants to know if she speaks German. When she says she does, he offers her the opportunity to serve her country—by singing to enemy POWs. She’ll be gathering intelligence information, but to a lot of people she will appear to be a traitor, giving comfort to the enemy. Edie is torn, but in the end decides to risk her reputation for the greater good of service.

Also, Lt. O’Malley will be her OSS contact, and Edna finds him very attractive. Even more so after he gives Edna her first ever kiss.

Edie, renamed Eva to sound more German, is sent to POW camps in the UK where the German soldiers are as receptive as were the Americans. All but one: a German officer. The German officer, as Edna describes him. He regards her with disdain, but sings like an angel. Edie is fascinated and infatuated. She asks him to teach her how to sing with such emotion. His response is a “withering look of disdain,” which, of course, only makes her more determined to confront him.

Thus starts one of my favorite recent stories. It’s nuanced, with well-developed characters and an intriguing plot. In some ways, it’s an old fashioned tale; it deals with loyalty, honor and love.

I suppose at this juncture I should tell you that this story is told in comic strip form. Not graphic novel, but strips that ran daily for some 11 months, keeping me on the edge of my seat each morning as I waited to read the next installment.These strips have now been collected into a book, so you can read the whole story at one sitting. If you do –and I hope you will—take note how almost every strip ends with a line that will give you pause. I hate to call it a punchline, because makes the whole thing sound cheap. The humor grows out of situation and character and is often poignant.

McEldowney does a marvelous job of explaining a situation through his characters. For example, Juliette asks if Edna was in any danger. Not from the prisoners she replies, then goes on to explain,” Well, there was this little thing called ‘The War’… and you have no idea how hot feelings can run at such a time. . . . Somehow people knew I had been visiting a POW camp and I could feel their hostility. I consorted with the enemy. . . . There was also the problem with being a Yank. Americans got a reputation for arrogance when we entered the war. We strode in among a population that had been frustrated and battered for years. . . and they quickly hated us more than they did their actual enemy.”

In those lines, Edna sums up a situation more elegantly and compassionately than many books I’ve read. That’s part of the appeal of this book for me.  There’s a personal view of history, yet it’s viewed with the perspective time gives.  Most of all, it feels real.

Brooke McEldowney is a man of many talents. His background in both art and music (he was a professional musician for a time, playing the viola) shines through his strips.  They’re literate but accessible.  He has a fluid style and in this series uses shading to grand effect.  It’s like reading a classic black and white movie like “Casablanca.” The appeal is visceral, however.  He engages our emotions. In the forward for the collection, McEldowney reveals his reason for doing this story. He found an item that had belonged to his father when he was a young man, and he decided he wanted to tell a story to remind us that those members of the “Greatest Generation” were that, but were also young men and women first.  He wanted us to look at our parents and grandparents not as icons or crotchety caricatures but as human beings.  By the end of the story, our view of Edna has changed in a profound way, and in a way that can cause us to rethink the way we have perceived some of those we love.

Coincidentally, not long after I re-read this series I found my father’s own cache of photos and a few letters he had had written while overseas in WWII.  Among them was a note which said there were two things he wanted to do for sure when he got home and nothing should stop him.  One was to get a life time subscription to Reader’s Digest.  I chuckled, but for the first time I pictured him as a twenty something young man, still a bit wide-eyed about the world

Thank you, Brooke McEldowney.

(P.S.  If you check for the book in our card catalog, please ignore the description of the book.  The description is for Pipgorn, the second of Brooke McEldowney’s strips.)

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