A Woman's Place
Three-time Christy Award winner Lynn Austin pens an engaging novel about four diverse women who become friends while working at a ship-building factory during World War II in the fictional town of Stockton, Michigan. The seemingly simple plot of relationships between women is shot through with the meaty themes of forgiveness, discovering identity, prejudice, gender roles and faith. Each of the four will fight their own battle to change their past and invent a future for themselves.
Virginia "Ginny" Mitchell is a sweet little housewife who has been dominated by her husband Harold for years. She is insecure about her marriage. Is Harold having an affair? When she impulsively joins the WWII workforce, Ginny begins discovering her identity as a woman who is competent and can contribute in more ways than just as mother and wife. In an evangelical Christian story such as this one, Austin successfully walks a fine line between showing the importance of stay-at-home moms and the significant contributions made by working mothers.
Rosa Voorhees is a sultry, gorgeous Italian from New York City who hits the bottle while trying to get along with her churchgoing Dutch in-laws she lives with in Stockton. She is desperately in love with her new husband, Dirk, who is in the military. "Rosa had found what she'd longed for all her life, and she was terrified she would lose it." She strives to overcome a difficult past, create a different future for herself, and overcome obstacles to earn her high school diploma.
Helen is a lonely 50-ish single teacher who fears love and relationships. Her six brothers and sisters all died young, and years ago she was the victim of an unhappy love affair (whose specifics unfold in a surprising plot twist). "If her siblings' brief lives had taught her anything, it was that life was short, happiness fleeting." Helen has lost her faith and fears relationships, but her friendship with the three other women chips away at her cold persona. When the opportunity to teach opens up, she must choose between mentoring her new friends and a secure job. When tragedy strikes the four friends, she regrets ever loving anyone again. Will her heart change?
Jean is caught between her attraction for two men: one movie-star handsome and a long-time love, and another with a good heart but crippled by polio. As she wrestles with a decision of who will win her heart, she fights stereotypes about college and suitable career choices for women.
When a POW camp is set up in Stockton to house German prisoners, readers will find it interesting that Helen is vehemently opposed and prejudiced. Yet she fought her father's disapproval to teach young black students and children of migrant workers. The reason for her violent dislike of the Germans unfolds as the book nears its end.
Austin is a talented writer (CANDLE IN THE DARKNESS, FIRE BY NIGHT, HIDDEN PLACES), and some of her scenes particularly shine. A women's church meeting where the punch is inadvertently spiked provides some hilarious moments (reminiscent of the Andy Griffith episode where Aunt Bee and her friends take too much "tonic.") Seeing the war briefly through Ginny's two young sons' eyes also provides some poignant moments. The African-American character of Thelma King gives Austin a chance to flesh out some of the issues of racial injustice of the time period.
There is some repetition (we hear at least three times where Jean's brothers are stationed). Ginny's use of italicized new vocabulary words is engaging at first, but becomes a bit irritating halfway through the novel. Other than these few quibbles, readers will find A WOMAN'S PLACE a lovely window into the WWII time period, and a nice book club read with its conversation starters about racism, gender roles, overcoming a difficult past, and forgiveness.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 1, 2006