Wax (Blue Star Books, 324 pages), by Therese Ambrosi Smith, is a novel set in the 1940s that mixes a coming of age story with a mystery. It is a piece of historical fiction as well, taking its inspiration from the struggles that women faced as they went into and out of employment for the war effort during World War II. It centers on the stories of three Rosie the Riveters who bond while working together at the Kaiser Permanente shipyards in Richmond, California. During the day they help to build the Liberty ships that kept the Allied effort well-supplied, while at night they grow close together and bond like sisters.
Each of the three major characters comes to Richmond, California to escape the limited options facing independently minded women in the 1940s. Matilda “Tilly” Bettencourt leaves her family in San Mateo County so that she can do more then be a waitress at their restaurant. Inspired by an advertisement starring Katherine Hepburn, she wants to do her part for the war effort and make her mark in a world previously reserved for men. Meanwhile, Doris Jura decides to give up her life selling cosmetics in Pittsburgh in order to try something more exciting on the West Coast. She quickly becomes something of a celebrity in the shipyards for scoring at the top of the aptitude tests the company gives. Finally, there is Sylvia Manning, who is the oldest of the group and from Kansas City. She comes to California seeking a new start after a failed romance with another woman.
The first part of the novel deals with their daily life in the shipyards, showing the difficulties that women came to face during this period, as well as their personal sense of accomplishment at helping the country win the war. It focuses in particular on the development of Tilly as she emerges from her sheltered and secluded life to learn the tricks of the shipbuilding trade. Even though her home is the closet to Richmond of all the characters, in a psychological sense she travels the furthest to get there. It might be hard to imagine now, but the Bay Area was not as always developed as it is today. Of particular shock to her is seeing a colored person for the first time. However, this will not startle her as much as when she realizes she has romantic feelings for Sylvia. Times being what they were, Tilly has to keep this affection to herself.
During their time in the shipyards, the three women learn new skills, gain a greater sense of their self-worth, and deal with their new found freedom by going to bars, movies, and clubs. However, there are still limitations to what they are allowed to do because they are female. Despite the opportunities that the war has opened up for them, the characters face discrimination in pay and participating in unions. Just like all the other Rosies, they also understand that once the conflict is over, they will have to vacate their positions in favor of the men returning from overseas. So it is with mixed feelings that Tilly, Doris, and Sylvia greet the news of the Nazi surrender. On one hand they are happy for peace and victory, on the other, they know it means a return to the world they tried to leave behind.
Just as they predicted, work in the shipyards slows down and the three women are laid off. Their services, though appreciated, are no longer needed. Tilly and Doris decide to go into business together making candles using the paraffin wax that they came across while building Liberty ships. They will build a factory near Tilly’s house on property Doris has inherited from a recently deceased uncle. Sylvia, however, has no long term plans. She is interested in buying one of the trailers they were housed in at the shipyards and taking it across America to tour the countryside. But this dream never materializes. After saying goodbye to Tilly and Doris, she moves to Reno and lives a largely uneventful and isolated life.
At this point the novel shifts into its second part, which tells the story of Tilly and Doris as they adjust to peacetime and try to build their new business. Here, Wax does a good job of showing how difficult it was for the former Rosies to go back into their old lives. They had worked outside the home and had enjoyed the fruits of freedoms previously denied to them. Now they are all expected to put these experiences behind them. Even though Tilly and Doris have a plan to preserve their independence, they face the normal challenges of starting a company, plus the rampant prejudice against females in the business world. Luckily, they are able to find an understanding ally in John Callen, a local carpenter who helps the two women build their candle factory.
John takes a liking to Tilly and courts her despite Tilly’s lingering feelings for Sylvia and the opposition of Tilly’s mother, who harbors a secret about Tilly’s true relationship to John. They date and John asks her to marry him, which forces Tilly to make a decision about what she truly wants out of life. Complicating matters further, Doris begins investigating the silent partner who also owns the land she inherited from her late uncle. One night, after an arson attack on the candle factory, a series of events are set in motion which reveal the identity of the hidden partner, Tilly’s true parentage, and a web of corruption that dates back to the Roaring Twenties and involves John’s grandfather, a local judge. In the end, Tilly learns the cost of keeping secrets and decides to live honestly with Sylvia without repressing her feelings.
Overall, Wax is an enjoyable novel that is a quick read. It is easy to follow, particularly when the main characters become involved in the intrigues of Bay Area politics and real estate. Smith is a skillful writer and brings a forgotten side of World War II to life. She eschews both broad stereotypes and the temptation to turn the main characters into broad symbolic representations of what women experienced working for the war effort. Tilly, Doris, and Sylvia have their own personal stories and struggles. For instance, even though Sylvia is a lesbian, her relationship to her nephew and his death in the war defines her character in the novel more than her sexual orientation.
However, the book does undergo such an abrupt shift in subject matter and tone that one cannot help but wonder if it would be better as two novels instead of one. While Tilly’s journey of self-discovery is integrated with Doris’ investigations, separating the two stories would allow for more focus on each one. This way the experiences of the women in the shipyards can be expanded upon, just as the struggles of post-war adjustment can be explored in depth. In particular, this would have given Sylvia more exposition, a character that I found myself wanting to know more about as I read the novel. Her experience as a lesbian in pre-Stonewall America was something I thought could be discussed without detracting from the rest of the novel.