Today I want to introduce my readers to Elinor Florence, author of a new Canadian wartime novel called Bird’s Eye View.
Bird’s Eye View tells the story of a young woman from the prairies whose fictional home town of Touchwood, Saskatchewan becomes an air training base. Fired with patriotism, she joins the air force herself – one of 50,000 Canadian women who enlisted to support the fighting men.
Rose Jolliffe travels overseas and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, spying on the enemy from the sky, searching out bomb targets on the continent. But she keeps in touch with the home front through frequent letters, so readers get a bird’s eye view of the events taking place back in Canada, as well as the action in Europe.
Since Elinor herself grew up on a former wartime airfield, I asked her how that inspired her novel.
By Elinor Florence
Canada didn’t see combat at home during World War Two, but the face of the country was changed forever by the tens of thousands of young men who arrived here from England to train in our peaceful skies.
Altogether the British Commonwealth Air Training Program graduated 131,553 aircrew from bases near eighty cities and towns, most of them on the prairies because of the flat land, clear skies -- and fewer trees and mountains to crash into!
In my home town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the RAF arrived on July 24, 1941. Practically the entire population (the city had fewer than 5,000 residents then) turned out to greet the first train filled with 700 young RAF members, mostly English but also from Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
This old photo shows a typical steam train engine.
When the train pulled in, the mayor and councillors were present, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wore their traditional red serge uniforms. Women’s groups handed out refreshments to the crowd, and a band played rousing wartime tunes. Several Cree chiefs donned their feather headdresses and walked miles from their reservations, just to shake the hands of “the King’s Warriors.”
The boys were exhausted after their journey – not only across the submarine-infested Atlantic, but more than 3,000 miles by train across a vast continent.
And there were so many of them! There weren’t enough military transport vehicles to drive them to the base east of town, so civilians gave them rides in their cars and trucks, and friendships were struck up almost immediately.
Here’s a shot of the base just it looked then, consisting of seven major hangars in a semi-circular arrangement. (Photo Credit: RCAF)
Aerial view of North Battleford
The local boys had left by then, and there was a shortage of eligible men. So the girls, naturally, were enthralled by these handsome young lads in their blue uniforms and their endearing “foreign” accents.
At least 3,750 Canadian women married airmen from the bases, including 34 from my small city alone! The girls were massively outnumbered, as seen in this old photo of a dance held at the base in one of the hangers. (There’s a scene in my book where Rose attends a dance in the hanger).
The only people who weren’t quite so thrilled were the Canadian boys still at home, farming or performing other essential services. In fact, a rumour sprang up that a white flash in an airman’s cap (to show that he was air crew) was a signal that the guy had a sexually-transmitted disease!
Here’s a photo of Pat Bryant, who did NOT have a disease, showing his white flash.
But it is safe to say that every Canadian mother’s heart went out to these young boys, especially the ones whose own sons were away from home.
My mother’s parents hosted so many airmen that the house wasn’t empty for years – the guys spent many 48-hour leaves there, playing the piano and singing, walking the dog, and horsing around with my two little uncles (the airmen were also missing their younger brothers and sisters).
And they also made themselves useful. They helped to harvest crops, organized hockey teams, and played in bands at local dances and graduation ceremonies.
Pilot trainees were in town for a full six months, plenty of time to settle down and feel at home. One of them even started to call my grandmother his “Canadian mum.” Others wrote and sent gifts to her for decades after the war ended.
Then, of course, there were the sad times. All the Canadian training bases experienced a horrifying number of accidents. My mother’s own boyfriend Max Cassidy of Australia was killed just a few miles outside town.
And there were also the guys who left town with many fond farewells. Some time later, a letter would arrive to say that he had been killed. “Everyone in our house would be crying and feel terrible for weeks afterwards,” my mother said.
Her stories about the young aircrews far from home inspired my book, and that’s why I dedicated Bird’s Eye View to her. Here’s a photo of the way my teenaged mother June Light looked at the time.
My young mother.
But there is another personal connection, one that began several years after the war ended. I grew up on a former wartime airfield. As a child, I used to lie in bed at night and imagine the ghosts of all the air force veterans, literally in my own back yard.
When my father returned in 1946 from his stint overseas with the RCAF, he was sick of taking orders and desperate to farm. So he scraped together the money and purchased one of the flat, treeless airfields from the government, which was ideal for farming.
It was called a relief airfield, because it handled the overflow from the main station at North Battleford. Along with the land came several sturdy, serviceable wooden buildings. Our house was fashioned from a former T-shaped barracks building. The T was cut into two pieces, and the short end became the home where I grew up.
My father plowed under the grass runways, and planted wheat. Here I am standing in the wheat field, with the former barracks building in the background.
Elinor in wheat field.
My father is dead now, but my brother Rob took over the farm. The house where I grew up is still used by my mother June, who is now aged 90, as a summer residence.
In the nearby field, the main airfield administration building still stands. The long grassy track was once a busy runway where the new recruits practiced their wobbly takeoffs and landings.
Shed in field.
The original building had three large storage bays, with administration offices at one end. A staircase led to the roof, where a square glassed-in control tower allowed the officers to keep an eagle eye on the raw recruits. Now little remains but a calendar from 1945, still hanging on the wall.
My sister and I moved away, but my brother and his wife took over the farm and raised four children here. Like we did, my nephews and nieces romped among the ruins of the former airfield. Several years ago, my brother erected a permanent marker to honour the farm’s former glories. Perhaps one day that will be all that remains of the past.
Photo of Elinor
About the Author:
Elinor Florence grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, worked as a newspaper and magazine editor, and was a regular writer for Reader’s Digest before turning to fiction. Married with three grown daughters, Elinor lives in the tiny but perfect mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. She loves village life, thrift stores, antiques, and old houses. You can read more about her at www.elinorflorence.com.
She is also on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/elinorflorenceauthor?fref=ts
Visit the other fascinating posts on the Bird’s Eye View Blog Tour here:
BIRD’S EYE VIEW BLOG TOUR
I’m participating in a week-long blog tour. You can visit each one of these blogs in turn for seven days, to learn more about Elinor Florence and her novel, Bird’s Eye View.
And I’ll give away an autographed copy of the book to the lucky winner of the Rafflecopter giveaway.
Wednesday, November 5:
Wartime Wednesdays: Read an Excerpt From Bird’s Eye View on Elinor’s own Wartime Wednesdays blog here: www.elinorflorence.com/blog/birdseyeview-excerpt.
Thursday, November 6:
The Book Babe: Book Review, Author Interview and Giveaway. Tara Chevrestt is an American book and movie reviewer with a special interest in strong women, vintage fashion, and aviation. To read her interview with the author, and her review of Bird’s Eye View, visit http://wwwbookbabe.blogspot.ca
Friday, November 7:
Rite While U Can: Author Interview and Giveaway. Barbara Brittain-Marshall is a human resources professional in Calgary, Alberta, and blogger on the lost art of letter-writing. Here the author talks about her grandfather’s post office and how it influenced her novel at http://www.ritewhileucan.com
Saturday, November 8:
The Vintage Inn: Author Interview and Giveaway. Liz Gruening is a professional marketer, swing dancer, member of the Toronto Vintage Society, and blogger. Here the author describes the air force uniforms worn by her heroine in the novel. Visit The Vintage Inn: http://www.vintageinn.ca.
Sunday, November 9:
Low Fell Writers Place: Author Interview and Giveaway. Suzy Henderson is a British historical fiction writer and amateur historian with a special interest in aviation, and blogger. Here Elinor discusses how her childhood experiences sparked her interest in Canadians in wartime. Visit http://lowfellwritersplace.blogspot.ca
Monday, November 10:
Chronically Vintage. Author Interview and Giveaway. Jessica Cangiano is a British Columbia-based professional vintage blogger and online vintage seller, photographer, and full-time vintage lifestyle enthusiast and wearer. Read Jessica’s interview with the author at http://www.chronicallyvintage.com
Tuesday, November 11:
Author Interview and Giveaway. The Bird’s Eye View Blog Tour concludes on Remembrance Day with Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, a freelance writer and researcher, author of two non-fiction books about Canadian aviation, Edmonton’s Historian Laureate, and blogger. Here Elinor explains the ins and outs of aerial photo interpretation, at http://www.daniellemc.com/blog/
Enter the Rafflecopter below for your chance to win a FREE paperback copy of Bird's Eye View by Elinor Florence. The lucky winner will be selected at random and contacted by me to arrange delivery of the prize.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
a Rafflecopter giveaway