Our Times Review - The Factory Voice

Crashing Planes & Secret Plots
Reviewed by: Maureen Hynes

The Factory Voice is a quick-paced, character-driven novel, full of rich historical detail and surprising twists and turns in the plot. The first thing you notice about the novel is how its author, Jeanette Lynes, has assembled it: she uses a long prologue to develope her characters, a chapter each, till you get to know them and the Second World War factory setting in Fort William (now part of Thunder Bay), northern Ontario.

Probably the most interesting character is Muriel McGregor, an engineer whose character is, in fact, based on one of Canada’s real wartime figures, Elsie McGill. McGill, Canada's first woman aeronautical engineer, headed up the production of the Hawker Hurricane aircraft in Fort William; Canadian wartime comic books were written about her and her accomplishments ("Queen of the Hurricane"). Other characters include Florence Voutilainen, a young Finnish woman, a victim of suspicion because of her parents' communism. The "Red Finns" in the area were still considered dangerous, so the factory management keep Florence on probation far longer than any other employee, despite her impressive skills as a riveter. There's Audrey Foley, an irrepressible run-away teenager, who has escaped an all-but-arranged marriage with a local Albertan farmer to trundle the snack cart around the factory, calling out, "Coffee! Tea! Deep-fried gopher hearts!" And there's Thaddeus Brink, an escaped political prisoner originally from British Columbia, where he was an activist, and where he mourned the death of Ginger Goodwin (a labour leader famous for leading strikes for the eight-hour day in B.C. mines, being an outspoken critic of the 1914-1918 war, and for being shot dead by the RCMP in 1918). Brink is fiercely opposed to the "imperial war machine," oh which the factory, of course, is part - and has a mysterious past link to Elsie McGill.

Lynes creates a complex palette of characters: not all of them are appealing. Ruby Kozak is a cut-throat babe who's gloried in her triumphs and buried her traumas, and will not give up her journalistic ambitions, no matter who she hurts (she is the character who snatches the chance to write the weekly newsletter, The Factory Voice, as part of her stenographer job). As Audrey learns, "A lookker could turn out to be mean." And Jim Petrik, another character with a hushed-up past, seems to be up to some shady dealings that implicate some innocent people.

Lynes snatches the characters' lives and histories together with an almost Dickensian set of coincidences: a minor example is how Audrey, the teenaged runaway from Alberta, arrives in Mort William on the same eastbound train as Muriel McGregor.

But who is Jeanette Lynes? She's written five books of poetry, has won several literary awards and teaches English and Women's Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Lynes's work and personality have huge appeal - she's smart, edgy and no detail misses her gaze. If you ever have a chance to catch her reading, do so; she's a brilliant and witty performer of her work. With the combination of her fine poetic skills and her alertness to the tragedies and ironies and excesses of the popular culture she grew up with, her "poetic biographies" on women like Dusty Springfield and Twiggy are powerful. Lynes is also the Poet Laureate of the New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia. For another glimpse of her poetics, here's an interview clip from This Magazine, 2005: 

Stuart Ross: Jeannette, what's the use of poetry?

Jeannette Lynes: Poetry is the last frontier of anti-corporatism.

What's not to love about that wry summary of the function of poetry?

Lynes worked for six years in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and for part of that time was involved in a historical project interviewing women who had worked on the line during the Second World War at Canadian Car and Foundry, a Fort William factory that was transformed from bus and streetcar production into a Hawker Hurricane aircraft design and assembly plant for the war effort. About half of it's 4,500-strong workforce were women. Those women's stories, Lynes says, stayed with her, and she uses them as a solid research base for this novel.

Though there are many fascinating subplots in The Factory Voice, the main plot revolves around the factory's test planes, which keep crashing. Muriel's job is to figure out why. Is it sabotage? Is it a design flaw? Is it "possible unauthorized parts"? Are the aircraft problems linked to the recent prison break by political detainees?

The urgent events matches the era's zeitgeist, and Lynes's skill in catching the slang, lingo and war issues brings the war closer to readers, heightening its realism. "ALL THIS COULD END TOMORROW" is an ominous banner hung over the factory machines, warning workers against "loose lips," i.e., unintentionally disclosing war production secrets. The warning is especially directed to the "young colts," women workers away from home for the first time, earning a whopping 16 bucks a month. But, of course, the knowledge of this temporariness is what motivates all the characters to risk a lot, and to live life enthusiastically. "Keep the zest keen," one character remembers a teacher saying, and that guides her life in the factory. 

Lynes's research into aircraft production is another strong point of the book. I loved the list that appears early on, underliningMuriel's expertise about each of the 20,000 parts in a plane: "The lovely things inside the bins - pulleys, sprocket wheels, trimming cables, cowlings, clevis bolts, Morse tapers, filler caps, trim cranks, manifolds, throttles, alloy castings...thousands of small notes making the symphony complete."

An echo, perhaps unintended, is how at war's end, we witness the closure of aircraft production (but not the plant) that throws the factory workers, mostly but not entirely women, out of work with no provisions or options for the future:

"The rumours of layoffs that have swirled through the sweltering production sheds are now true...The last Mosquitoes have moved down the line. The last rivets have been riveted, the final test flight flown."

A sadly familiar story in today's Canada, as well.

The Factory Voice is a fine book, immensely readable, soundly researched, and an important and wonderfully alive portrait of the women and men involved in Canadian wartime production. 

 

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