As you know, A Sunlit Weapon, the next novel in the series featuring Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, will be published on March 22nd next year. Time is flying by, so publication day will be here before you know it.

A Sunlit Weapon

In my last newsletter, I told you something more about the women pilots of Britain's Air Transport Auxilliary during WW2. A member of the "ATA" is a key character in A Sunlit Weapon. If you didn't see that newsletter, you can access it by clicking here.

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Diana Barnardo Walker of the Air Transport Auxilliary

While I don't want to give away too much about the story, it is set at the same time as the 1942 visit to Britain by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The First Lady was invited to Britain by Queen Elizabeth (later affectionately known as the "Queen Mother" after her daughter, Britain's current monarch, acceded the throne in 1952). Queen Elizabeth wanted the First Lady to see the many roles that women had undertaken since Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939—and Mrs. Roosevelt was very keen to do so, as she had been a firm supporter of women taking on war work in the United States.

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Eleanor Roosevelt meets a woman engaged in wartime factory work, England 1942

Another friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who was instrumental in organizing the visit was Lady Stella Reading, the founder of Britain's Women's Voluntary Service, as it was then known—today it's the Royal Voluntary Service. I've spent time viewing the records held at the Women's Royal Voluntary Service archive in Gloucestershire, England. The archive is housed in a rather nondescript building, staffed by a small but dedicated team of professional archivists and volunteers. Many people still think of the WVS as being the women in green uniforms whose work was limited to providing tea and cakes to the men and women impacted by the repeated Luftwaffe bombings on Britain's cities, or handing out clothing to people who had lost everything—but their work extended far beyond those duties. I could not help dripping tears as I read through the hundreds of pages of wartime reports the women were required to keep concerning their daily work. One report described a bombing that killed 600 people in a London neighborhood. Yes, the women in green were there with the cups of tea, but they also found lodgings for the homeless and they played a crucial part in identifying the dead, which they had to do with compassion and care. In one report entry, the volunteer described gathering shreds of fabric from human remains at a bombsite, then finding survivors gathered at a church hall, where she had to ask if people recognized a certain piece of material. She described the experience of people remembering that, yes, that scrap was from the dress a daughter was wearing when the bombers came over, another came from the pinafore worn by someone's mother, and there was the piece from a child's coat. Slowly but surely, the dead were identified and the bereaved—invariably also homeless with no possessions left—were comforted.

Jacqueline Winspear Books
The Women's Voluntary Service working in a bombed out area during WW2

The arrangements for Eleanor Roosevelt's arrival were supposed to be a secret, not only because she was a prime assassination target for the Germans, but because there were also Americans who would have liked to see her demise. Mrs. Roosevelt's opinions had often been controversial—she had been a vocal supporter of the NAACP, and of the rights that should have been accorded to Americans of Japanese descent. In addition, she had lobbied on behalf of the poor and for women's rights—not entirely popular positions at the time. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt made it a rule that only women journalists would be allowed to report on her press conferences in the USA, which meant that the newspapers had to scramble to hire women into a job considered chiefly a male domain.

Jacqueline Winspear Books
Eleanor Roosevelt at a White House press conference

Needless to say, despite traveling under an assumed name, upon arrival in Ireland—the route the aircraft took from the USA to the British Isles—Mrs. Roosevelt was recognized straightaway. Then poor weather set in and she and her secretary, Mrs. Malvina "Tommy" Thompson were stuck until they were able to fly on to Southampton, on England's south coast, where they were met by Ambassador John Winant, who joined her for the train journey to London. The King and Queen would never meet a guest at an airport—it was against protocol at the time—so they welcomed the esteemed visitor at Paddington station.

Jacqueline Winspear Books
The king and queen meeting the First Lady at Paddington Station 1942

Eleanor Roosevelt had a full schedule during her visit, which lasted several weeks. One of her first ports of call was London's East End, where she was stunned to see that crowds of people who had endured so much suffering had gathered to welcome her. Everywhere Eleanor went, so the British came out to cheer for her—and true to the purpose for her visit, she spent most of her time with the women of Britain, whether they were enlisted with one of the armed services, working in a factory, or "manning" the anti-aircraft batteries. She visited factories, childcare centers, the Women's Voluntary Services and she met those "Attagirls"—the women who were crucial to Britain's air defense as they ferried aircraft to aerodromes around the United Kingdom.

Jacqueline Winspear Books
Mrs. Roosevelt with Britain's women ferry pilots in 1942

Mrs. Roosevelt had the same luggage limitations as any other air passenger, and brought only one pair of shoes for evening, and one for daytime. Given the amount of walking involved in her grueling tour, in a short order she wore away the soles of her shoes and ended up stuffing newspaper into them to plug up the holes. Not only did she make a point of meeting women engaged in every type of war work, but she visited American servicemen around the country.

Jacqueline Winspear Books
Mrs. Roosevelt meets American soldiers based in Britain during her 1942 visit

Needless to say, keeping the energetic Eleanor Roosevelt safe was more than a challenge for US embassy staff—and in A Sunlit Weapon, Maisie's husband, Mark Scott, a political attaché at the embassy, is one of those tasked with ensuring her security. A conflict of interest arises when Maisie uncovers evidence to suggest that the death of a woman ferry pilot is connected to a plot to assassinate the First Lady.

You'll have to read the book to find out what happens—and the impact Maisie's discovery has on her relationship with her American husband.

In the next newsletter I'll be telling you more about the background to another thread in the story as it unfolds in A Sunlit Weapon—Maisie's discovery of an African American soldier, bound and gagged in a barn very close to a famous WW2 aerodrome. In the meantime, here's a listing of my "virtual" events in connection with publication of A Sunlit Weapon. Full details will be available on my website soon!

  • Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, AZ – 3/21
  • Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA – 3/22
  • Murder by the Book, Houston, TX – 3/23
  • Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA – 3/24
  • Broadway Books, Portland OR – 3/28
  • Village Books, Bellingham, WA – 3/29
  • Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco, CA – 3/30 (awaiting confirmation)

Until the next time—here's wishing you a very good Holiday season, from my house to yours.


A Sunlit Weapon

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