Friday Book Whimsy: The Secrets We Kept

Between the end of World War II and President Ronald Reagan’s stern warning to the Soviet Union —  Mr. Gorbochev, tear down this wall — was a period of fear of communism and secrets about weapons and rocket ships and likely a lot of misunderstanding, not only by the people in power, but by the common folk like you and me. This frightening environment was no more obvious than in the 1950s, when the so-called Red Scare was at its most pronounced.

The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott, is the story of plain ol’ ordinary women who by both chance and circumstance became spies. Or, if not spies, at least secret-keepers. After all, while the men in power dictated the memos, they were the ones who typed them.

But another thing that transpired in the early 1950s was that a man named Boris Pasternak finished the novel on which he had been working for many years. It was called  Dr. Zhivago. And it was the bane of the Soviet Unions leadership’s existence. They would do almost anything to prevent this so-called subversive propaganda from being released.

It is this scenario which resulted in Irina — a quiet, nondescript woman whose mother came from Russia, and Sally — a beautiful if disarming and strong-willed woman, being pulled from the clerical pool to assist in secretly bringing this novel to the United States to be published.

At the same time, Pasterak’s long-time mistress Olga, the model for Lara in Dr. Zhivago, fights her own battle to help with the cause, including many long years in a Soviet prison.

The Secrets We Kept  is a novel of espionage, but it is also a novel of 1950s sexism, love, friendship, and the power of the written word. Based on a true story, the author’s descriptions of this time in our history, and the role the book played, is powerful. I loved the book.

Here is a link to the book.



I Spy

I was born at the tail end of 1953. Throughout my life, I sort of forgot how close my birth was to the end of World War II. Not even 10 years between the end of the war and the birth of this blogger. I can remember things that happened eight years ago — 2011 — like they happened yesterday. That must have been the way my dad and mom felt. My dad, in particular, served in the United States Navy at the end of the war, and his marriage and birth of my sister transpired only a couple of years later. Those days must have felt like yesterday to him, also.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of novels that take place in the 1950s, during the Cold War, and they got me to thinking about my childhood in the 1950s. I do remember the Cold War. I will admit that I have no memory of atomic bomb drills in school, but I certainly remember praying for the conversion of the people of the Soviet Union. Perhaps in a Catholic school, conversion took precedence over what were likely completely useless duck-and-cover drills.

I have only a fleeting memory of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the subsequent so-called Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. My sister Bec, who is five years older, remembers both events clearly, as well as the tension and fear in the room as they watched the television and prayed. Being only 8 years old at the time, I was probably way more interested in playing with my Tiny Tears doll in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, clueless as to how quickly and enormously my life could have changed. While my dad was not a fan of President John F. Kennedy, I think that he supported the tough stand he took against Castro and Khrushchev.

Both of the books that I read —  The Chelsea Girls  by Fiona Davis and more recently The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott (which I will review on Friday) dealt at least in part with the espionage angle of the Cold War. Again, I was a mere urchin when Sen. McCarthy was holding his Senate hearings and everyone was worried that their neighbors might be Commies. But the decades between the presidency of Ike and President Reagan’s order: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,  are etched clearly in my mind. There were stories almost daily in the news, especially during the 1960s. But more than that, at least as it related to my pre-teen and teenage self, the books and the movies that dealt with spies and espionage and government secrets were plentiful.

So plentiful, in fact, that when the Berlin Wall did come down and the Soviet Union crumbled, authors and movie-makers didn’t quite know what to do. Who should be the villain now? How could you have secret agents and secret double agents when there was nobody on whom to spy? September 11, 2001, provided an enemy for a while, but Americans never had the appetite to make Iranians or Iraqis or Afghans evil in their entirety in the way they could with the Soviets.

My take-away from these two books that I read was that the idea of spying on the Communists for the United States government sounds really cool. I’m pretty sure I could have played the part of a nondescript woman who carries secret documents in her ordinary J.C. Penneys handbag and discreetly and successfully drops them in the potted palm to be picked up by another spy. I would have had a little pearl-handled pistol and a cyanide pill in my billfold.

Alas, instead I am a gray-haired nana who has nothing but a little bottle of water and breath mints in my purse.