Rosie the Riveter is an appealing icon that has come to represent a non-threatening depiction of strong women attractively forging ahead in a man's world. But what was life really like for those World War II-era women who walked out onto factory floors for the first time, taking over jobs previously held by able-bodied men now fighting overseas? How did they reconcile the brand-new challenges of balancing their lives as working women and primary breadwinners with their ongoing traditional roles as wives and mothers?
Doing a Man's Job
Recreating their imagined lives is part of what John Crowley undertakes in his novel Four Freedoms, which ostensibly revolves around a young disabled man, Prosper Olander, whose own quest to "do a man's job" is the thread that links the stories of a handful of women working in an aircraft assembly factory in the early 1940s.
Love, Desire, and the Wartime Workforce
As a literary work from one of contemporary fiction's most highly-regarded writers, the novel's rhythms are more leisurely than those books that typically top the bestseller lists. But many of the passages in Four Freedoms
read less like highbrow "literary fiction" and more like chick-lit. There's the multi-layered complexities of women's lives, the intense passions that accompany love and desire, even some hot and heavy sex scenes, written in a way that Crowley (who initially made a name for himself in the fantasy/speculative fiction genre) has rarely tackled before.
Four Freedoms builds slowly as the author opens with a detailed account of early attempts at flight and the start of the Van Damme empire. (You may find your mind drifting, but these pages lay the groundwork for how women came to be a large part of the wartime workforce. ) Once the focus shifts to Prosper Olander and the women who work beside him in the factory, however, the novel takes flight.
What Brought Them There
One gets the feeling that Crowley loves observing women because he captures them so precisely and so intimately. There's Vi, a tall and easygoing ballplayer who chooses to work for aircraft manufacturer Van Damme because of its women's softball league; Connie, an emotionally fragile young mother who breaks out of her shell and discovers she is not only employable but possesses valuable skills; and Diane, a newlywed whose wartime pregnancy forces a quick marriage she is unsure of.
All of them end up in Henrysville, the town that springs up on the outskirts of Ponca City, Oklahoma, where Van Damme Aero creates a new community to house the hundreds of workers that flood into its aircraft manufacturing facility where the B-30 Pax plane is built.
The Other Half of "The Greatest Generation"
We all know how the story ends. The Allies win the war, women head back home and Rosie the Riveter goes back to making beds and babies. But her blue jumpsuit, hair tied up in a red bandana, her muscular Michelle Obama "gunshow" arms, and her "can do" attitude forged the way for a later generation of women who entered the workforce and stayed for good.
Crowley's novel is a bit of historical fiction that gives credit where credit is due, spotlighting the women back home who kept the home fires burning and the factories running while their husbands and lovers fought World War II. Popular culture has since anointed these men "the greatest generation." But what about the women? Four Freedoms goes back in time to correct this oversight, bringing us stories filled with love, loss, integrity, and heart.
by John Crowley
Hardcover, 389pp. ISBN 978-0-06-123150-6-1
William Morrow / May 2009