Two years ago I picked up, on a whim, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls, and I fell in love. The book was the perfect blend of history, politics, and feminism. I’m pleased to say that with Red Letter Days, Stratford has done it again. While the protagonists share some superficial qualities—both move from North America to Britain, both work in communications industries in some capacity, both become somewhat embroiled in espionage and skullduggery—Stratford has chosen a different era and a different set of problems for her heroines this time around. Although slow to start, Red Letter Days did win me over.
Their stories told in parallel, the two protagonists are Phoebe Adler and Hannah Wolfson. Both Americans, Phoebe is a TV writer while Hannah is a TV producer. When Phoebe is blacklisted (for being accused of communist sympathies), she moves to London, where Hannah has been building her own production company—and hiring blacklisted Americans like Phoebe. The two must navigate the treacherous waters of the entertainment industry, sexism, sexual politics, and espionage. It’s quite the story.
I just love Stratford choices of time periods! Just as I didn’t know much about the founding of the BBC, I know very little about McCarthy-era America—my history class in Canada tended to stop around World War II, and everything after that was, I guess, too modern. So while I was aware in general of McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States, Stratford brings it to life in an empathetic, dramatic way. Phoebe’s sudden and unexpected blacklisting is hard to swallow, and the merciless and cruel treatment she receives as a result might seem melodramatic and unrealistic to those of us who have grown up with more privileges and apparent freedoms. Yet is it really so unbelievable? Looking at the way people treat each other here and now, I don’t see all that much difference. As Phoebe observe in the book, people don’t change that much across history—certainly not within a century. These days we condemn people scurrilously over social media, and our governments continue to practise surveillance techniques that would make the HUAC drool in envy.
So it was interesting to immerse myself in this time period, but probably even better was just living with Phoebe and Hannah for a while. Stratford gives us two strong yet very distinct women. Phoebe is headstrong but young, and she feels an immense sense of responsibility towards her sister, who is immuno-compromised and lives in a sanitarium at Phoebe’s expense. Hannah is older, more experienced, has a husband and two children—her struggle is with her sense of responsibility over the people she has chosen to bring in to write for her and her company in general. Whereas Phoebe debates whether or not she wants a relationship, Hannah debates whether or not her relationship can survive her being a working mother.
Of those two stories, I found Hannah’s more interesting. My aro/ace self was less interested in Phoebe’s romance arc. It would have been nice if the story were to confirm her choice to be a single, working woman—but I do like the decision she makes at the end, regarding her marital status—I thought that was very mature. Hannah’s story, on the other hand, is extremely predictable: 1950s husband is jealous of his wife’s success, feels emasculated, etc. Nevertheless, Stratford writes this with such feeling that you can’t help but be drawn into the messiness of Hannah’s emotions as she processes this upheaval in her life.
My only complaint is probably about the writing style in general. I don’t remember if this was an issue with Radio Girls, but in this book, there is an awful lot of telling rather than showing. This creates a kind of distance from the main characters, which can undermine my observation above regarding the amount of feeling on the page. In the same way, some of the more antagonistic characters are far too flat and one-dimensional—I’m including Charlie Morrison here, along with the Hound guy.
Red Letter Days would, like Stratford’s earlier novel, make an excellent film adaptation. It has the story, the characters, the setting—everything you need. It also has the heart. All these elements mean that I am more than willing to overlook those little stylistic issues that occasionally jarred me. When you get right down to it, this is a story of adventure and betrayal at a time in history that I needed to know more about. It doesn’t get much better than that.