Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Underling, by Ian McKercher

A review of The Underling, by Ian McKercher
Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Some novels bring to life a little known part of history. Others are memorable for their engaging central characters. Others offer humour, intrigue and suspense. Occasionally, a novel like Ian McKercher's
 The Underling, combines all of these features. (The Underling is published by General Store, Renfrew On, 2012, ISBN 978-926962-41-2).

McKercher, retired from Glebe Collegiate's English department, has written a novel that is conventional in form but full of surprises. One surprise is that his protagonist is a seventeen year old girl. As the novel opens in 1934, Frances McFadden, a secretarial student at Ottawa's High School of Commerce, has been asked by Prime Minister Bennett to establish a research bureau/archives of Canadian banking and business information in advance of the establishing of a central bank, so that the governor will have background resources on hand immediately upon his appointment.  Legislation to charter a Bank of Canada is before Parliament. In setting up this preliminary office, Mr. Grace needs an assistant with good skills but no previous work experience to "unlearn."

McKercher, who grew up in London, Ontario, based Frances, to some extent, upon his mother. Her stories about her days as a young employee made it clear that those who head organizations are not always the ones really running the show. An underling, working behind the scenes, often has a great deal of influence and contributes to the success of the enterprise in creative ways.

"The Market crash took [Frances's] family under," writes McKercher, who captures his heroine's circumstances and social status with well-chosen detail. Interiewed by Mr. Grace over lunch at the Chateau Laurier Hotel, Frances encounters an avocado. She has never seen one before but she recognizes it from a picture in a Ladies' Home Journal. Later, to refurbish her wardrobe in advance of starting work, Frances buys knee socks to match her skirts. Soon Mr. Grace gently suggests some new outfits "to make her look older."

While her boss is away on Bank business, Frances sets up their office, with amusing adventures. Later, she accompanies Mr. Grace to Toronto to meet luminaries of the business and finance worlds, to convince them of the need for the Bank of Canada. In response to their fear that a central bank will interfere with a free market economy, Mr. Grace replies, "Who is happy with the way the market is functioning now?"

The Bank of Canada came into being in March 1935. Thanks to the secretarial grapevine, Frances hears before her boss does that its first governor will be Graham Towers. Mr. Towers and other real people mingle with fictional ones in this novel. Fictional Frances has close encounters with two very real prime ministers.

Much of the novel is about getting things accomplished in a system with many fiefdoms and hierarchies. George Orwell, who once said that too few authors write about work, would applaud McKercher for recreating a work environment of the past. One significant difference between the 1930s and the present is shown when a young woman asks if she can keep her job after she gets married. She is permitted to do so - but only for the time it takes to train her replacement.

As 1939 brings the Dirty Thirties to an end, war clouds gather. Can Polish gold reserves be saved from the Nazis? Yes, and Frances plays a pivotal role. She sums up the novel when she says, "This trip has been frightening and exhausting and exhilarating and intriguing, all rolled into one. Pretty heady stuff for a girl from Rochester Street." 

A friend of mine, who died a few years ago in her nineties, started work as a secretary during the Great Depression and went on to a fascinating career with an international organization.  The Underling  implicitly pays tribute to the achievements of women like her.

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