On the day in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, each of the four main characters in Lynn Austin’s A Woman’s Place is in the middle of her own personal crisis. A prologue sets the stage for each of them to come to work in the Stockton (Michigan) Shipyard. The book then takes us into the personal lives of these diverse women, and we follow them through the years of World War II as they do their bits for Uncle Sam while holding their lives together at home and adjusting to the social and personal changes that war brings.
The book’s strengths stems from its character studies, setting, and themes. In the character department, Austin throws together four very different women and in this way gives us a taste of four segments of the community. Virginia, a timid full-time wife and mother, doesn’t even have the nerve to tell her businessman husband she’s taken a job. Helen, a bitter old maid school teacher, takes extra pains to keep the walls of her heart up against invasion, even by her workmates. Rosa, a lusty new bride, has a terrible time adjusting to living with her straight-laced in-laws. And Jean, a bright and ambitious farm girl, can’t wait for the war to be over so she can go to college.
Following four characters simultaneously was no problem. Austin’s way of writing from only one character’s point of view per chapter and titling that chapter with the character’s name made it easy to track the four women and their individual story threads. By book’s end I felt each of the women had noticeably changed – something one expects to find in character-driven fiction. That aspect of the book helped to making the reading journey feel worthwhile to me.
I enjoyed the novel's historical perspective and setting – a wartime shipyard. Bits about life on the home front, like the pressure put on women to help in the war effort, the mixed welcome women receive in an up-'til-now male workplace, the rationing of gas, the excitement of mail and lots of other minutiae of the time were brought to life by the story’s events. In addition, Austin moves us along through the war years by prefacing some chapters with dates. She gives us a feel for what’s happening on the war front by including, in the dated chapters, headlines of the time.
The themes of A Woman’s Place flow from its social and historical setting. There is a book-long preoccupation with the question, what is a woman’s place? Arriving at an answer for the women in the story is not straightforward. They must pit government pressure to work in the factory and the satisfaction of meeting personal needs to feel significant and useful, against the disapproval of society in general and the needs of their own husbands/boyfriends, families and friends in particular.
Another issue that gets a lot of attention in the book is racism. Austin focuses on the segregation that was rampant in the workplace in the 1940s by weaving examples of it into the plot.
The active and lapsed Christian faith of some of the characters brings to the fore issues of spirituality. More than one character asks questions like "how can a God of love allow war?" and "how can I be loyal to a God who doesn’t intervene to save the live of my loved one?"
One of the weaknesses of the book was the opening. In the prologue I found dialogue that seemed unnatural in places because it was crammed with background information. In addition, the introduction to the four main characters occurs in vignettes where each is drawn in such unappealing lines that I wondered if I’d ever come to like any of them.
Should you have the same reaction, soldier on. The prologue is short. Once into the story you'll find these women morph from the self-absorbed creatures we first meet, into complex characters which I’m sure will grow on you as they did on me. All in all, A Woman’s Place is a thought-provoking, eye-opening and worthwhile piece of World War II Americana.Powered by Sidelines