Jeanette Lynes’ debut novel, The Factory Voice, is an entertaining and engaging story set in an airplane factory in Fort William, Ontario, during the Second World War. Lynes, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University, brings the wartime experiences of the factory women to vivid life by skillfully employing the language and manners of the era.
One of the main characters, Muriel McGregor, is loosely based on Elizabeth MacGill, the first female aeronautical engineer in Canada. But Muriel is only one of several fascinating female characters. Ruby Kozak, a former beauty queen, works as a typist and writes the factory newsletter, called The Factory Voice. Ruby wants to get out of Fort William and make it big as a real journalist, and she is more than willing to use others to do so. Florence, a large, unattractive, and ungainly girl who is learning how to weld, is the antithesis of Ruby, possessed of a decency that the other woman lacks.
But the most endearing character – and certainly the most sympathetic – is Audrey Foley, who runs away from home at the age of 16 to escape an undesirable marriage her parents have arranged for her. Audrey, who embodies the word plucky, becomes the snackwagon girl at the factory. A scrawny teen grateful for any crumb of attention, her character is rich enough to provide fodder for a whole other novel.
Lynes employs a variety of points of view in telling her story. Audrey addresses the reader directly, often revealing extremes of emotion: “I was shaking so bad, I headed for my sack of sorrows in the storage room behind the cafeteria kitchen where I keep my cigarettes.” In other cases Lynes employs third-person narration, Muriel’s diary entries, and letters home from soldiers. Lynes does an excellent job of weaving these various points of view into a smooth narrative.
The Second World War is vividly evoked, complete with political issues of the day (near Fort William is a detainee camp; one of the inmates who escapes is an anti-war protestor and socialist), slang (“bees’ knees,” “swell”), food, music, and fashion (Ruby sports a “Veronica Lake” hairstyle). The pace of the novel maintains suspense without ever seeming manipulative. Moreover, although the characters occasionally teeter on the edge of becoming stereotypes, they never fall over: Lynes maintains their integrity as unforgettable individuals with unique problems. All of this makes for a compelling narrative that is hard to put down.
Also from Lynes is The New Blue Distance, her fifth book of poetry, and while the volume includes some gems, the strength of her first novel suggests that she should consider permanently switching genres. The most successful poems are intensely Canadian in subject matter and setting. “My Mother’s Feet” is a lovely paean to a hard-working farmer’s wife. “Elegy for Country Girls in Love with Hockey Stars” depicts the magic someone like Bobby Orr can weave on girls from the middle of nowhere.
The collection is split into five sections that don’t have obvious thematic or structural unity. An exception is Part IV, “What Can Happen When You Love a Poet,” a sequence of powerful poems about Elizabeth Smart. Lynes does a good job of showing Smart’s willfullness on the one hand, and her inability to resist George Barker on the other.
In contrast to the solemn Smart poems, “Granite Abbey: Lines Composed in Saskatoon on Re-entering a Curling Rink After Many Years’ Absence” plays with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and (remarkably) combines memories of the innocence of curling with the horror of 9/11, aging, and English department meetings. Lynes juxtaposes the familiar with the impending gloom of the future, “when athletics are reduced to brushing teeth or raising/ myself from my chair.”
Both The Factory Voice and The New Blue Distance demonstrate Lynes’ keen, grounded perceptiveness, but oddly, it’s the novel that has more measured rhythms to match its various characters. The novel’s prose flies, like the airplanes the factory workers make.