“By the time this humble war is over the dependent woman will be as extinct as the prairie hen.”
Keepers of the Faith
As Keepers of the Faith begins, Nancy Barton is fed up with her half-sister’s interference and moves to Washington, D.C. to work as an interpreter at the newly-completed Pentagon. It’s the fall of 1943, the height of World War II:
Italy. Russia. France. Germany. The South Pacific. Death, destruction and devastation everywhere… and here she was in Washington, a city which the eyes of the whole world were watching, a city to which the ears of the whole world were listening.
“At first I had a smothering sense of crowds, a prickling awareness of antiaircraft guns visible on the tops of office buildings; of the yellow air-raid shelter signs; of raid drills halting traffic on the bridge. They gave me a breathless realization of danger.”
Nan stays in a private home in Arlington where a senator’s widow has taken in boarders–Suzanne Dupree, a gossip columnist with a past; Admiral Zeb Howe, a veteran of WWI; Oliver Stiles, a “radio bigwig,” and Major Bill Jerrold, a decorated Marine who met Nan when he was feverish from malaria and is now following the trail of a German spy.
Never before had she seen the tall, lean, dark-haired officer with the gold oak leaf on the shoulder of his Marine uniform… Memory flamed. She had seen him… Excitement set her heart pounding as he put his arm around her…
Keepers of the Faith provides a veritable tour guide of wartime Washington, D.C.–the Pentagon, National Mall, Blair House, and events of the day.
She thought of the first time she had stepped from the bus into a roadway under this huge five-sided building… “It’s claimed this is the largest office building in the world. They’ve said it: forty thousand occupants. Kept bumping into gold-braided admirals, generals and lesser big shots in uniform.”
“Yesterday I was sent to Blair House, that’s the Government guesthouse, to help two sheiks, their Royal Arabian Highnesses. Fortunately, they spoke French.”
This was the real visit to Washington, D.C. of the Arabian Foreign Minister, His Royal Highness Amir Faisal, and his brother, Amir Khalid, the Arabian Minister to London. Their highnesses stayed in Blair House and dined at the White House in October, 1943. I keep reminding myself that Emilie’s original readers would have understood these references without having to look them up, as I have to do.
Emilie also used the capital’s historic backdrop. Nan spends quite a lot of time at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria–so much that when I visited there myself, Emilie’s descriptions replayed in my mind.
The windows in the long, irregular facade of the Tavern, beautified by an elaborately wrought iron balcony, peered into the moonlit night like blinking yellow eyes… Beyond a doorway the flames of innumerable candles cast flickering reflections on the polished Georgian furniture of a large drawing room.
“The Tavern gives me the feeling that if the walls could speak they would tell thrilling tales.” “Pity they can’t. George and Martha Washington danced here.”
“…In here, dearie, to leave your wrap. It’s called the Female Strangers’ Room because, legend has it, a mysterious lady languished and died in it.”
No surprise, the story of the female stranger was true, too. The woman died in Room 8 of the Tavern in 1816, and one hundred years of conjecture and embellishment kept her mystery alive.
Nan Barton and Major Bill Jerrold have their own mysteries to solve. Is Francois Bouvoir really Nan’s childhood acquaintance Carl Brouner from Germany? Is he sending messages to the enemy via Oliver Stiles’ radio show? How is Suzanne Dupree mixed up in it? Is it espionage?
“I’ll just remind you that so tense and in such danger is this country today, that even happenings that seem unimportant, fragmentary, may change the course of a life, of a battle, tragically.”
When I read an Emilie Loring book, I often look up the lyrics or listen to the songs she uses. Like historical events and places, I suspect they hold references that may be important to the story. This time, though, I think she was simply dance-happy. I counted thirteen song titles in Keepers of the Faith: “Speak Low When You Speak Love,” “Sunday, Monday Always,” “The Night was Made for Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “When You’re Away, Dear,” “You’ll Never Know,” “Merry Widow Waltz,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “The Marines’ Hymn,” “None But the Lonely Heart,” “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” and the catchy “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
“It’s the American way of life to dance when the clouds are heaviest.”
It is characteristic that Emilie’s women characters break away from their pasts to find new courage, but this was a time that demanded courage of everyone.
… as if the timidity and indecision which had hobbled that other girl had been swept away, leaving this one with the strength and the compulsion to fight, and die if need be, for what she knew was right.
How many Emilie Loring readers yearned as Nan did in October of 1944, when Keepers of the Faith was finally published?
“Ever thought of what kind of a world you want after the war?”
Dessert came with that question. Frozen pudding in tall, thin glasses, petits fours and small cups of fragrant, hot black coffee.
“I can answer that one. I want a world in which people will really have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A world in which the golden rule will have proved itself a practical working formula for individuals and for countries.”
Nan spends her Christmas day alone and listens to King George’s annual speech on the radio:
First came the solemn boom of Big Ben. Then a nice English voice announced: “His Majesty the King.”
“Once again from our home in England the Queen and I send our Christmas greetings and good wishes to each one of you all the world over.”
Eyes on the fire, Nan listened as the cultured, slightly halting voice went on in its message…
You can listen to King George VI’s speech here. In the middle, he, too, shares an optimistic vision:
“But there is one landmark in the somber, world-embracing battlefield which I hope and I trust may endure. Wherever their duty has called our men–and women–they have gained new friends and come to know old friends better. They have learnt to share the burdens and read the hearts of their neighbors. They have laid the foundations of new friendships between nations and strengthened old ones formed long ago. As a result, there is springing up in every country fresh hope that out of comradeship and sacrifice comes the power to restore and power to build anew.”
“No experience can be too strange and no task too formidable, if a man can link it up with what he knows and loves.”
She turned off the radio and sat motionless, steeped in wonder at the marvel which could bring a voice from across the ocean into the room with her.
After Christmas alone, Nan Barton plans to spend New Year’s Eve on her own, too.
“I’m dining with my best friend… With myself. Dressing for dinner is one of my top spirit-lifters… Pike is to serve my dinner before the fire in the library. This ‘snazzy outfit’ is in honor of a gal named Barton.”
“Heck, no romantic lead. What a lousy New Year’s eve. Where’s Bill Jerrold?”
Indeed. Bill Jerrold does come through, but in wartime, romance had to take a back seat. Nan tells him,
“If anything happens that you can’t follow, get our information across to army headquarters. Thousands of lives may depend on it. I’ll take care of myself. Don’t think of me. Promise.”
Emilie’s readers in 1944 understood that pledge, with their loved ones in service, at home and abroad.
“Marry me Tuesday and we can have a few days together before I go. You’ll find plenty of ways in which to help win the war at the base. How about it?
“It sounds like heaven, Bill.”
She thought of the brides, wives with young children, mothers and fathers, who, like Amy Trask, turned rigid with fear at sight of a yellow envelope, of those whose hearts already had been pulled up by the roots by one of the messages. The women who are the keepers of the faith…