Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: John Crowley's Four Freedoms

John Crowley explores mind, body, spirit and human society through intriguing individuals. He's unafraid of coincidence, magic, or mystery, every person enmeshed in a life that constricts in some ways but exalts in others.

His 2009 novel Four Freedoms is about World War II America.
"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way-- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world."
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress, January 6, 1941

Roosevelt's optimistic assertion is not enough to transform the status quo, but in combination with America's shift to a wartime economy and the removal of white men, drafted and sent overseas, from their accustomed dominance, it adds impetus to a sea-change. Marginalized people - cripples, minorities and women - are suddenly wanted, and paid, to step into the vacancies - and so they flower, and thrive, and find fulfillment far outside their accustomed niches.

We follow Prosper Olander, a young man with a twisted spine and useless legs, who journeys from Chicago to an airplane factory in Oklahoma. This factory, the creation of a pair of brothers long fascinated by flight, is a self-contained village: houses and streets, clinics, child care, a newspaper, cafeterias and entertainment - an ideal community dedicated to war materiel. Its round-the-clock workforce have come from all over the country to earn top wages. Most are women, many married to servicemen but others single, excelling at work they've never before been allowed to do.

Crowley's story flows from one character to another, into their lives and thoughts. We learn important moments in their histories, we see how love and loss have blunted them, and we watch as they form alliances then break them. Prosper, though crippled, attracts certain women, and proves a simpatico and able lover, a catalyst who makes them consider a more open future.

This book is primarily about women: Prosper's father left when he was small, his struggling mother fell ill, he grew up with a pair of maiden aunts. Meanwhile, the women he meets are on their own in ways unthinkable just a few years before, their resourcefulness surprising not just to them but to society at large. One is a standout softball pitcher, another a young mother who becomes a highly competent inspector in the factory.

Crowley fully evokes wartime: the way ramped-up military manufacturing ended the Depression; the rationing of food, gasoline, and other resources; the sounds, smells and habits of an era. Changing circumstances shook society into motion: new places, new roles, new confidence. The weakening of the family gave rise to individual success, and like-mindedness trumped blood ties as people sought personal freedom within relationships. By ending the story after V-E Day but before the servicemen come home, he leaves us with a hopeful vision of America's future - along with the realization that in every era greatness is squandered, and we permit or maybe even welcome the fetters of the past.

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