As Valentine’s Day drew to a close, I spotted this short story offered free for the day. Having just finished a tense mystery, I thought this would be a perfect interlude, a sweet space between the murderers of the last book and the thieves of the next. I was right and so very very wrong.
Norma McIlroy and Frank Atwater are active volunteers with the USO in Tacoma, WA. It is 1943 and WWII is in full swing, with servicemen constantly moving in and out of the naval base there. Frank volunteers because he wants to support the war effort and the servicemen, coke-bottle glasses the evidence of why he cannot himself serve. Norma volunteers because she is looking to fulfill her childhood dream of finding a knight in shining armor. And the current knights all wear military uniforms instead of chain mail. She is also under emotional pressure as she is the last of her family and her social circle to remain unmarried.
As the story opens on Valentine’s Day of 1943, you think that this will follow a typical scenario – Norma gets dumped by yet another serviceman and she finally sees the treasure and the love behind those coke-bottle glasses. Oh, Norma gets dumped alright, but that is all she sees, other than her own unfilled wishes and her own pain. And the scene closes.
Then the next scene opens – three months later, in May 1943. What? Wait just a minute! That’s not how a sweet Valentine’s Day romance is supposed to go. But that’s how Judith Laik takes the story. Told in third person from Norma’s point of view, we follow Norma through several more romantic dead ends, always confiding in and leaning on her best friend, Frank. Then we see Norma experience a confusing bout of jealousy when she first sees Frank in the company of another woman. And she simply cannot understand the feelings of restlessness and despair she feels when that best friend must make repeated trips to his boyhood home, a ranch in Montana, after the critical wartime injury of his brother.
Laik spins this 60-page short story through two more Valentine’s Days and nearly two and one-half years total in time. She spins what was promoted as a short, sweet romance into a tension-building and well-written thriller as Norma, Frank and their USO troupe find themselves in post-surrender Europe, trapped behind Russian lines.
This may be a short story but the author does not skimp on detail or reality in either the climax or the closing scene. And by the end, both Norma and the reader learn a few basic truths
Norma learns not to judge the proverbial book by its cover, that going off to war does not a knight in shining armor make. And she learns that when it comes time to save a life, her true hero wears coke-bottle glasses and cowboy boots instead of a military uniform and he wields a rope and a pistol instead of an M-1 rifle.
And the reader learns not to pre-judge a book by its promotional blurb.
Cover Art from Goodreads