A wonderful historical mystery in an unusual setting…
Mary Anna Evans has written a wonderful historical mystery, set in an intriguing time and place. Most World War II books are set in Europe, or the Pacific Islands, or Asia, where the active fighting took place. Evans, however, has chosen to tell her tale in the US, at a factory in Louisiana that mostly makes boats for the war effort, but also has a new Carbon Division that makes some top-secret gizmos that nobody knows anything much about. And along with the unusual setting, Evans’ heroine, Justine, is also a bit different. As the daughter of not one, but two physicists – note the position of the apostrophe in the title! – during an era when women were not taken seriously as scientists, she dreams of also being a physicist herself.
However, Justine’s hopes end when the death of her parents in a car crash leaves her without the financial means to go to college. So instead, she puts some of the skills she learned from her parents (reading drawings, machining, welding) to use by getting a job at the Higgins plant in the Michaud area of New Orleans. Something’s not right at the factory, though, and rather than being able to work steadily on assembling her bits of the mysterious gizmos, she keeps being asked to fix machinery that is breaking down. Justine begins to suspect sabotage, and her suspicions are furthered even more when an apparent “industrial accident” kills a co-worker and badly injures two others. What follows is a fascinating story as Justine uses all her wits to figure out what’s going on, and what she can do about it once she does. And also, of course, what the gizmos are for. Along the way she makes a number of friends among the other women working at the plant, and also attracts the attention of two very different men, but isn’t sure who she can really trust. Could the saboteur be her new best friend, or her supervisor, or maybe one of her two beaux?
Even without the mystery, though, The Physicists’ Daughter would be enjoyable reading, just for its fascinating and clearly well-researched wartime background: ration coupons for gas and food, slogans (“The Guy Who Relaxes Is Helping the Axis”), code-breaking, the Higgins factory itself – all come to life. And Evans’ writing is crisp, and moves the story along at a breakneck pace that makes the book very hard to put down.
Finally, on a personal level, I resonated with Justine’s concerns about losing her well-paying, if slightly boring, factory job, and finding herself relegated to being a housewife/mother, when eventually all the men would come home from the war. This is exactly what happened a couple of years later to my high-school valedictorian mother, who wanted to be a doctor, but wasn’t able to get into the pre-med classes she needed in college because the returning GIs had preference. So that part of the book really hit home for me.
I have no hesitation with giving The Physicists’ Daughter five stars, and I have my fingers (and toes) crossed, hoping there will be a sequel. And my thanks to the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, and to NetGalley, for the advance review copy.