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Yet another historical novel has emerged from the rubble of World War II: this time, The Paris Orphan (2019) by the Australian Natasha Lester. Featured therein is the plight of the first women photojournalists covering front line battles in Italy and France, to the pique of their male counterparts.

Like the protagonist Jessica May’s sensitivity to word and photo, the author weaves a compelling story. Of note is the balance struck between Jessica and Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hallworth, set against the atrocities of war; neither story overpowers the other. The inclusion of unexpected humor, from poignant to tender to gallows, together with the plot’s switchbacks makes this work. Even more compelling is her use of the dual timeline that fleshes out relationships, both authentic and sinister.

Names of real people, of memorable battle scenes, of old-world chateaux, of clothing, of Lucky Strikes, of language, attest to Lester’s research. She drew her Jessica after Lee Miller, a Vogue model-turned-war-correspondent, of considerable talent, during World War II. Martha Gelhorn, one of Hemingway’s wives, also palled with Jessica, making light of the filth that clung to them for days, sorrowing over the dead and maimed bodies in field hospitals and upon battlefields.

Critical to these women was reporting their impressions of this shocking world to their readers, never mind how male censors would alter their work before wiring them to newspapers. In no way could their male co-workers produce such photos and stories, and they knew it. It was their compassion. Thus the rub—

 

“And what color will your outfit be?” Dad asked of his women: Mother, my sister Martha, and me, days before our annual June vacation. Our trunks had already been shipped to their destination. Excitement mounted as last suitcases were snapped shut; as the truck from Kruse Florist rumbled up the circle drive and delivered three corsages, each with our names; as Dad beamed in the taxi taking us to Union Station and the train.

Once inside our compartment, I floated my corsage in the brass sink in hopes of preserving its beauty. As hours passed, I checked its color, its freshness, but to no avail. Even then, I had no tolerance for deterioration and death.

Why such abhorrence of death, integral to all life forms, including ours? Again, Dr. Singh addresses this question in The Grace in Dying. It has to do with life and death, the Second of the Four Dualisms that an infant confronts in the development of his/her mental ego. Rather than be swamped by the unknowability of death, he sets a critical boundary behind which life continues unfolding on a manageable scale: the size of a postage stamp, per Dr. Singh. Only when threatened by terminal illness or significant losses does death cower over us.

Thus begins the necessary dismantling of the mental ego with the dissolution of the other Dualisms: self and not-self, mind and body split, and the acceptable and unacceptable, each having served their purpose. Central to this purifying process is the Ground of Being, or God, with whom the individual is preparing to remerge, with full consciousness. Bliss follows.

 

 

 

Yet, I still feel uneasy tossing out five-day-old tulips, their blooms withered, their leaves faded, their stems meandering.

Available on Amazon

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