Kristina McMorris writes unforgettable novels of historical fiction, which means a lot to me since I read so much that I forget a good many books. But not hers.
This well-researched story begins in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, when we get introduced to Fenna Vos, who is working as an assistant and behind-the-scenes manager of a magic act. It flashes back to 1928 in Michigan when Fenna is just shy of 11, and then ends up in 1943 London with Fenna working for the Allies in the war effort.
We learn that in 1943 Fenna has been recruited by Christopher Clayton Hutton, a real person who was responsible for helping prisoners of war by “tricking out Monopoly games and designing countless other escape-and evasion ‘toys’ for MI9.”
[MI9, as Wikipedia explains, was the the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9, a highly secret department of the British War Office during WWII. It had two principal tasks: (1) assisting in the escape of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) held by the Axis countries, especially Nazi Germany; and (2) helping Allied military personnel, especially downed airmen, evade capture after they were shot down or trapped behind enemy lines in Axis-occupied countries. To this end, the department devised a number of – in effect – magic tricks to give to soldiers as equipment, such as compasses hidden inside buttons, hollow boots in shoes that were filled with dried food, or maps concealed in playing cards. McMorris tells us in her Author’s Note that MI9 used the services of former magician Jasper Maskelyne to design some of these devices, and it is thus she got the idea to add Fenna as an assistant to Hutton.]
McMorris also adds a strong romance element to her stories, and this one is no exception. Fenna, orphaned young, grew up with the family of Arie Jansen, one year older than Fenna, and like her, the offspring of a Dutch family who had come to America to work in the copper mines. She and Arie had always been close, and it was Arie who gave Fenna a book, Houdini’s Big Little Book of Magic & Stunts to help distract her from nightmares. Fenna buried herself in learning magic and tricks:
“The art of escape became more than a tool to rein in my fears and reduce my nightmares. It was an all-out obsession.”
It served her well during WWII, not only during her stint with the British War Service, but after she was sent into enemy territory and came under mortal danger.
Thereafter the tension escalates exponentially, as Fenna has to muster the courage to use her skills to orchestrate the ultimate escape.
Evaluation: As with the other novels by McMorris, you find yourself swept up in the historical events and romance she depicts, and you can’t turn the pages fast enough. Afterwards, you find yourself haunted by the story she has told, and grateful for the opportunity to have read it.
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022