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Four Freedomsby John Crowley
Synopses & Reviews
One of the most admired and honored of our contemporary literary artists, author John Crowley now brilliantly re-creates a time in America when ordinary people were asked to sacrifice their comforts and uproot their lives for the cause of freedom.
In the early years of the 1940s, as the nation's young men ship off to war, the call goes out for builders of the machinery necessary to defeat the enemy. To this purpose, a city has sprung up seemingly overnight in the windswept fields of Oklahoma: the Van Damme airplane factory, a gargantuan complex dedicated to the construction of the B-30 Pax, the largest bomber ever built. Laborers — some men, but mostly women, many of whom have never operated a rivet gun or held a screwdriver — flock to this place, eager to earn, to grow, to do their part. Many are away from home for the very first time, enticed by the opportunity to be something more than wife and homemaker. In the middle of nowhere they will live, work, and earn their own money, fearing for the safety of their absent fighting men as the world around them changes forever.
Vi, with her gun of a pitching arm, finds Van Damme after fleeing a dying ranch and a stubborn, broken father to chase a future built on something stronger than poison earth. Connie, once fragile and helpless, follows an unfaithful husband here with their little boy in tow — and inadvertently discovers who she is and what she's capable of achieving. Before Diane can enter the factory's gates, the restless young woman must leave behind the hot music and soldier boys she followed, taking a sudden, bold, and dangerous step in pursuit of something different, adult, and real.
Their journeys will be liberating in ways they couldn't imagine, and will lead each of them to Prosper Olander. Disabled, an artist, a forger, a friend — a surprising lover and compassionate listener — Prosper has followed unlikely opportunity down a painfully twisting path to take his place as the true heart and soul of a temporary city. And before the B-30 Pax takes flight, he will change the lives of four women in profound and unexpected ways.
Destined to stand tall among his previous acclaimed fiction — including Little, Big; The Agypt Cycle; The Translator; and Lord Byron's Novel — John Crowley's Four Freedoms is perhaps his most heartfelt and compelling novel to date. It is a moving, evocative, and unforgettable saga of wives, mothers, and lovers — of strangers, outcasts, and damaged Quixotes — who, unmoored by conflict's unpredictable tides, find community, purpose, identity, independence...and one remarkable man who will touch them all.
John Crowley's most recent novel, "Endless Things," provided a resonant conclusion to his four-volume "Egypt" saga, an epic meditation on magic, memory and the cyclical movements of history. Crowley's new book, "Four Freedoms," is a different sort that shares with its predecessor a fascination with the intimate details of vanished historical epochs. His subject this time is the nature of life on the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) home front during World War II. Through his wide-ranging imagination and precise prose, Crowley re-creates that era — its culture, its sexual mores, its dominant air of uncertainty — with seemingly effortless fidelity. The narrative follows a diverse group of characters whose destinies converge in the unlikeliest of places: Ponca City, Okla. Ponca City has joined the war effort and serves as the construction site for Van Damme Aero, the company responsible for building the B-30 Pax bomber, the largest aircraft ever designed for military use. Workers from across the country flock to the site, forming a self-contained community in a town called Henryville, which springs up almost overnight around the Van Damme plant. Included in their ranks are skilled laborers with military deferments, the undersized (known locally as the Teenie Weenies) and the disabled, along with a great many women learning to survive in a world now largely devoid of men. From 1943 to '45 they work together on this single project, until a literal wind of change blows through town, leaving chaos and wreckage in its wake. The central figure in all this is Prosper Olander, a disabled young man from the East Coast. Prosper is born with lordosis, a relatively minor spinal deformity made infinitely worse by "corrective" surgery. Orphaned at an early age, he spends a substantial portion of his adolescence in an orthopedic hospital. Raised, alternately, by two eccentric maiden aunts and a pair of marginally criminal uncles for whom the war represents an economic opportunity, he adapts, with resourcefulness and impressive good cheer, to a world simply not designed to accommodate his needs. In Ponca City, Prosper discovers a larger, more expansive life than he has ever known. First, he finds a job that takes into account both his burgeoning artistic gifts and his physical limitations. He then enters into a series of sexual entanglements with a trio of memorable women: One is a world-class softball pitcher who moves to Oklahoma after her father's cattle ranch collapses. Like Prosper — and virtually everyone in this novel — she is searching for a better life. Another woman, accompanied by a son with the unfortunate name of Adolph, has come to Ponca City to reunite with her distant — and unfaithful — husband. And Prosper's third affair is with a very young, newly married woman who has to cope with a pair of unplanned pregnancies. Crowley depicts these very different women with sympathy and skill, adding to the amplitude and depth that distinguish the narrative at every turn. On the surface, the subject matter of "Four Freedoms" seems a departure from Crowley's earlier, more fantastic fiction. Beneath that surface, however, are some familiar Crowleyan concerns, among them the vision of history as an endless succession of World Ages, each one giving way to a new, sometimes radically different age, and the little/big dichotomy in which grand, sweeping events and small, personal dramas assume equal importance. The novel also reflects Crowley's ongoing fascination with the utopian impulse, the desire, never fully realized, to create the Harmonious City out of the flawed materials of human civilization. Ultimately, the significance of "Four Freedoms" lies in its thoroughness, the sheer specificity with which Crowley has imagined this one small corner of an imperiled planet. Whether he's describing a women's softball game, summarizing the early history of flight or elaborating on the proper method of forging ration coupons, he always makes the reader feel at home. I'm particularly impressed by his portrait of the world as it appears (or appeared back then) to people with disabilities: filled with hills, stairs and random obstacles that litter the everyday landscape, turning ordinary acts into potential hazards. Equally impressive are his casually authoritative descriptions of the work carried out by the riveters, welders, designers and mechanics who built the planes that helped to win the war. The result is an accessible, painstakingly crafted work that offers many pleasures and rewards. It could be the novel that finally brings Crowley the wide attention he has long deserved. One can only hope. Reviewed by Bill Sheehan, who is the author of 'At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Although nominally about life at an American aircraft factory during World War II, Crowley's complex and subtle novel is much grander....[A] triumph of both research and imagination....A wonderful novel that readers won't soon forget." Booklist (starred review)
"More rich, satisfying food for thought from one of America's most imaginative and accomplished novelists." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
From the critically acclaimed author of Lord Byron's Novel and The Translator comes an imaginative account of war and peace, innocence and wisdom, set in 1940s America.
About the Author
John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of ten previous novels as well as the short fiction collection Novelties and Souvenirs.
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