Mother Daughter Traitor Spy: Historical Fiction
Mother Daughter Traitor Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publish Date: September 20, 2022; 336 pages
First Sentence: "'Imagine - it's a year from now, 1941, or maybe even '42 - and Germany and the Axis have won the war," Hermann Schwinn was saying in a thick accent."
Main Characters: Vi and Veronica Grace, mother and daughter; Ari and Jonah, Jewish men working against American Naziism; Don McDonnell and Will Wagner, Nazi activists.
This is the second WWII historical fiction book I've read in a row that is based on true people and facts, AND that the central female character is unusual. In The Ways We Hide, she is an illusionist and helped the war effort by designing hidden things to help captured soldiers survive. In this story, she's a spy in Los Angeles.
Though it is definitely a book about a couple of strong women pre-WWII, it's not what you expect. Instead of being set in Germany/France, this is set in Los Angeles. Briefly, a mother (Vi) and daughter (Veronica) leave NYC and move to Los Angeles. Once there, aspiring journalist Veronica looks for work but in 1940, that field was not welcoming to women. She eventually found work as a typist for a couple who were highly placed in the local Nazi German Bund. When she discovered their mission, she and her mother reported them to the police and to the FBI, all to no avail. Eventually they find themselves in contact with Ari and Jonah, two Jewish men that lead a private investigation into the Bund and its activities.
As Vi and Violet agree to spy and report back, the tension ratchets up. Vi is a widow in her 50s feeling out of place in L.A. with no friends or direction. When she meets a couple women who compliment her clothes, she finds herself with an in to the well heeled women of the Bund as she embroiders swastikas and Hitler's favorite flower, the edelweiss, on their clothes. Vi gathers information from the wives, Veronica uses all her secretarial skills to become indispensable to the men and their meetings. Eventually they gather enough information about an upcoming event that prompts the FBI to become actively involved.
This book is based on true people and events and the premise shows the war from an unusual perspective and women who find themselves in an unlikely position to help the American war effort. I continue to be amazed at the way authors can find a person or event and pull all the connecting threads and end up with a cohesive, interesting novel.
These women just want to do what they think is right - they find the beliefs of the Nazi German group abhorrent and feel strongly it's their patriotic duty to do what they can to stop their hateful activities. I think the portrayal of "average" women doing extraordinary things just because they believe they are right and necessary is very well managed. Their internal conflicts, fears, resolve, and pride all vie for attention - as it would for anyone. I feel like I got a very complete picture of Vi and Veronica; the supporting characters maybe more of a snapshot - we don't learn much about any backgrounds or what prompts them to be either a Nazi sympathizer or a spy.
I had a fun surprise: Veronica attends a meeting and as she surveys the crowd, she thinks, "Hell is empty and all the devils are here." from Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. The same quote was in the book I recently finished, All The Devils are Here by Louise Penny - a bit of serendipity!
This book is well researched and, in the author's notes, she makes it clear how closely all the characters were to real people. Fascinating. The beliefs of the Nazi activists/loyalists felt appropriately extreme and I found corollaries between then and today's political climate disturbing as hate was the order of the day. Even seemingly "nice" people are caught up in the cycle of fear and hate.
The novel is engaging, readable, and has some tense moments when the women's spying secret is threatened. I enjoyed the descriptions of clothes and settings of the era, reminding me of LA in the 40s. I could see this becoming a great spy movie. Definitely worth your time to read and enjoy!