Four Freedoms by John Crowley
John Crowley’s Four Freedom’s takes its title from FDR’s speech to Congress in January 1941 in which he says, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms:
• “The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
• “The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way....
• “The third is freedom from want....
• “The fourth is freedom from fear….”
Crowley’s use of the term, however, doesn’t focus on a world made secure after winning the world war, but on specific segments of the US population for whom the war—and specifically the need to mobilize all available workers—brought access to freedoms they’d never known before: to women, to the handicapped, to minorities and to other marginalized citizens.
The nameless narrator begins the story with his childhood memory of playing in a derelict airplane near the Ponca City, Oklahoma, airport. (That got my attention because I played in a deteriorating WWII plane while my father was taking his flying lessons. It was parked at our small town airport, and the instructor’s son, who had made it his playhouse, wasn’t above inviting a girl to join in.) The narrator, who never really intrudes into the story, seems to be a Ponca City native “documenting” his city’s role in the war effort. He infuses the story with a certain enthusiasm and love of place that’s attractive.
Crowley creates a fictional aircraft plant—Van Damme Aero—building a fictional plane—the B30 Pax—outside Ponca City. The Van Damme brothers were early flying enthusiasts and Henry in particular had visions of building a “city of the hill” out of his factory, a self-sufficient town which came to be called Henryville where the workers who flocked to Ponca City for “war work” could live and work and be entertained. Everything was organized and ritualized, but Henry was no “big brother”, no profiteer bent on profiting from the government’s needs, but rather an aircraft enthusiast, interested in involving his employees in the great task entrusted to them.
Crowley obviously researched the WWII homefront—particularly “war work”—in great detail, and yet the novel doesn’t read like an historical novel pieced together out of tidbits of history. That’s largely because of the compelling characters who march through the novel, with the focus falling on several characters in different situations, rather than focusing exclusively on one set of characters. It starts out with the Van Dammes but the bulk of the novel focuses on Al and Sal Maas who are midgets, on Vi Harbison, who left a deteriorating ranch and had her moment of fame at Van Damme Aero using her softball skills, on Pancho Notzring, an idealist always planning the perfection of human society, on Bunce, who left his wife up North to get “war work” that would keep him out of the war but then found another woman to keep him company in Henryville, and on Connie his wife, who felt her way to independence and competence—first getting a job in a plant at home and then when that firm folded, following Bunce to Ponca City where she finds her way on her own skills.
If there is a “main character”, it’s Prosper Olander, whose spinal fusion operation as a kid left him completely unable to walk without braces and crutches. (The similarity of his disability—though not caused by polio—was extraordinarily like the President’s, though Crowley, rightly so, doesn’t push that.) Prosper’s father left when he was a child, partly because he couldn’t cope with a handicapped child, and his mother died while he was in the hospital. He’d been living a very restricted life with two aunts when the war brought possibilities for self sufficiency he’d never dreamed of. And possibilities for love (and sex) most people assumed he was incapable of. Damaged himself, he’s a healer for others, never sentimentalized though.
Speaking of which, the real danger of a novel like this would be falling into sentimentality, but it never does. Crowley’s characters have individuality and dignity where a less skillful writer might have created “typical examples” out of tidbits of history. In the end they’re all out of jobs, but not out of life or love or loyalty.
Finally, Crowley is an enormously talented writer, whose prose is dense and evocative with concrete details as well as ideas and concepts that widen the focus of even minor incidents and characters. Here’s one example that takes the reader right into the room with the big band:
That amazing rolling thunder a big band could make when it started a song with the thudding of the bass drum all alone, like a fast train suddenly coming around a bend and into your ear: a kind of awed moan would take over the crowd when they did that, and then all the growling brass would stand and come in, like the same train picking up speed and rushing closer, and the couples would pour onto the floor, the drumming of their feet audible in the more bon ton nightclub downstairs, where the crooner raised his eyes to the trembling chandelier in delight or dismay.