A mystery on the home front

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How do we help make history on a daily basis? When we learn history, the focus is often on the leaders who make things happen, whether they are presidents, businessmen, or leaders of social and political movements. But what about the people who make these movements happen: those who campaign for presidents or labor movements, those who wage wars, those who make things happen on the ground. Each in its own way contributes to making history, even if it is not always apparent. As Studs Terkel wisely stated in an interview in 2007, “Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what it is. They must count!

It’s at the heart of Lori Rader-Day’s latest mystery Death to the Green Lane. Set in England during WWII, a disgraced young nurse, nicknamed Bridey, takes on a nanny job to help care for ten children evacuated to the countryside during the height of the Blitz. Along with another nurse, she brings the children to Greenway House in Dartmouth, England, which turns out to be the private residence of “crime queen” Agatha Christie. Christie is more of a specter, a presence hovering above the characters in the story, than a full-fledged character. This draws attention to Bridey and her fellow characters. Their stories are the ones that matter here.

Bridey’s nursing colleague Gigi seems ill-suited for the job and her story doesn’t match. But Bridey just wants to keep her head down, get a good reference, and leave behind the accidental death of a man in her charge. When a young man is found dead nearby, Bridey fears his past mistakes will come to light. Can she take care of the children and find out the truth without her horrible past coming out? The narrative is written with eight shifting perspectives, mostly focused on Bridey, but also showing us the perspectives of one of the evacuated children as well as some of the servants.

What I liked about the novel is the image it portrays of the house. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in one of his fireside conversations during World War II: “There is a front and a battle where everyone in the United States – every man, woman and child – is in action and will have the privilege of remaining in action throughout this war. This front is here at home, in our daily life and in our daily tasks. “

In Death to the Green Lane, nurses may not be on the battlefield, but they quietly make a difference by caring for young children, including two infants. Townspeople play their part by watching out for enemy planes or spies and taking care of each other, especially when their neighbors’ sons (and daughters) are killed in action.

We can see that these are quiet but important contributions that support the war effort. But for the characters in the story, their role in the greater theater of war is unclear. There is a lot of guilt and heartache about being home and not on the front line. (Even the idea of ​​the front line is tenuous – war comes to them when enemy planes fly over and bomb parts of England.)

Lori Rader-Day Credit: Justin barbin

The work of Rader-Day itself is a historic act. A lifelong fan of Christie’s, she had discovered the story of children being evacuated to Greenway, a real house that can be visited, and really wanted to read a book about it. But no one had written about it. At first she was unsure whether to write it, in part because she was not a historical or British writer. In fact, she has lived in Chicago for 20 years.

But after five years of ideas in his brain, Rader-Day mentioned it to his publisher and the book sold in 2018. The book ticked off too many interests from Rader-Day. She has been a huge fan of Christie since the age of 11. In a phone interview this month, Rader-Day told me that Christie’s work “has a lot to do with my reading history and the kind of reader I’ve always been, the kind of writer I’ve become. . ”

She found it fascinating to see how the mythical Christie house she loved became involved in this escape story. She still has fond memories of the Disney movie Bed buttons and brooms which features two children evacuated to Angela Lansbury’s house during the Blitz. She relied on her interest in evacuation stories as well as her love for Agatha Christie to create Death at Greenway.

Of course, Rader-Day notes that there is nothing necessarily new in the history of the evacuation. She said: “A lot of Americans have an evacuation story deep in their hearts, but they don’t even think of it that way,” as in The Chronicles of Narnia—the children find the infamous wardrobe when they are evacuated from London.

It took Rader-Day three years to conduct the research for the book, including an overnight stay at Greenway itself, describing the experience as “one of the best things that has ever happened to me through. my writing ! She had to put together bits of information, sometimes half a sentence here and a nugget of information there.

While she feared how intimidating the research would be, she was able to piece together facts that had been lost over time. “I found them. I confirmed that they were the real people who worked for Agatha Christie and stayed home to help take care of this group or the chaperones that brought down the children. C ‘was really fun. Now we know that. We know it’s 100 percent forever, and I hope it never gets lost again. “She bonded with Doreen, one of the children who had been evacuated to Greenway when she was two years old.

There is disputed information about nurses. Christie had written that they were hospital nurses in her autobiography, but other sources suggest they were the chaperones’ daughters. Rader-Day used the nurses, especially Bridey, to move the story forward.

Admittedly, no murders were reported at the time either. But given that it was Christie’s house, Rader-Day felt “that it seemed appropriate to try to introduce a murder mystery into this real episode of the story.” But she placed it outside the house and property, feeling nervous about bringing fiction into the story.

Although she took some liberties with the story, Rader-Day played her own part in the story by bringing a forgotten piece of history to life.

While Death to the Green Lane is Rader-Day’s first foray into historical mystery, it is his sixth detective novel. She is the former national president of Sisters in Crime, a professional organization for mystery writers, as well as the co-chair of Murder and Mayhem, a conference of mystery readers here in Chicago. She said she found the Chicago and Midwestern mystery communities very supportive of her career. She cites Chicago mystery writers Sara Paretsky, Clare O’Donohue, and Tracy Clark among her favorite mystery writers, as well as Agatha Christie, of course.

Born in Indiana, Rader-Day came to Chicago with her husband for work. She had a fondness for the city, coming here for vacations and school trips. She remembers driving for errands and being amazed that they live here with the skyscrapers, which are linked to pivotal moments in her marriage. Rader-Day recounted how she won a competition for her and her husband to get married atop the Empire State Building in New York City; a year later, they celebrated their first anniversary on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center.

While his latest book is set in England, Rader-Day has two books in the Chicagoland area. She was inspired by her first book, Dark hour (published 2014), while working in Evanston at Northwestern University. Details change, of course, but the characters visit notable Chicago landmarks and learn about Chicago culture. But she admits, “Chicago is always a little stealthy, but I haven’t always felt ready to write about Chicago, since I’m not from here.”

Finally, she had put her fifth book The lucky in Chicago and Milwaukee because she felt she had been here long enough to do the city justice.

Although she may have turned her gaze to England for her most recent book, she wants people to take a fresh perspective on social issues from her work, starting with her first book through to the most recent. recent. For Death at Greenway, she said: “It’s a story of refugee children in times of war. I think that’s the sort of thing that unfortunately is still relevant to us today. . . You can give a dose of a lot of serious stuff if you keep people entertained as well.

With Death to the Green Lane, it reminds us that each of us plays our part in these great historical tales. Sometimes we fight on the physical front lines but sometimes we are at the back, taking care of each other.

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