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Gretchen Haertsch Reviews Jacqueline Winspear’s Elegy for Eddie

May 10, 2012

Once again I was on the Amazon waiting list for Jacqueline Winspear’s latest Maisie Dobbs novel, and, no, I opted not to get the Kindle edition.  For this series, I wanted to own the hard cover book.  The illustration on the cover of Winspear’s latest is one more reason to prefer the actual book for it so cleverly showcases just what the novel is about.  A horse pulls a carriage smack in the middle of the lower edge of the cover, as an automobile edges its way into view.  Note the lit-up Parliament and Big Ben in the background and the sun is going down.  Is the sun setting on England?  Well, it’s April of 1933 and the future of the green island might well be in the balance.  But this novel has a dual focus:  not only large-scale political manipulation on the political scene as in last year’s A Lesson In Secrets, but the fate of the little people who get caught in the ruckus.    And I personally like that theme of the working class.  It’s satisfying that Maisie never forgets her humble roots. 

Jacqueline Winspear, of course, is the author of the riveting Maisie Dobbs novels, historical mysteries set in post-World War I England. This novel is the ninth in the series and was just released in late March.  It may be one of my favorites in the series for in it psychologist and private investigator Maisie Dobbs returns to the costermonger circle of her childhood when she investigates the mysterious death of Eddie Pettit , a gentle, possibly autistic – before such a term existed –  man who has a special gift for working with horses.  This seems a particularly current theme, especially in the way Winspear incorporates plotlines on inclusion and bullying into the narrative. 

If we are truly to “read like writers” we learn from every aspect of a writer’s work and there are certainly lessons to be learned here.  The first might be to let your plot – even if the narrative is set in the past or future – speak to the times in which it is written. A character like Eddie Pettit – different, even odd, but with very particular gifts – is depicted with a protective, loving community that watches out for him and appreciates his talents.  In short, it is a model for how such folks should be treated today.  It’s inspiring to see how Winspear depicts the working class of London knowing the need for inclusion instinctively — and what’s more — acting on it.

The books also reflect Winspear’s long fascination with the English women who came of age during the Great War.  Her new blog provides glimpses into the rich research she has done which so obviously informs her novels.  She writes, “For many years, long before I became a writer of fiction, I had collected books written for, by and about that generation, and was fascinated by the way so many navigated waters that were unfamiliar to them, and who realized that at war’s end the landscape of opportunity had changed dramatically for women.”  It’s obvious that Winspear’s fascination propelled the books and not the other way around.  That’s a second lesson:  write about what you love, not to sell books.  The sales will follow if your work reflects your passion.

And one final lesson:  a writer can acquire knowledge through research, as Winspear clearly does, but some knowledge is innate or just part of who that author is.  For example, that horse on the cover?  Illustrator Andrew Davidson used Winspear’s own Friesian, Oliver, as inspiration for the silhouetted horse.  So Winspear lives with horses.  No wonder she got the horse descriptions so right!

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