Susan Elia MacNeal is one of my favorite authors, who often introduces me to pieces of history I should be familiar with but am not and history I might be familiar with but not enough. These are not history lessons. They are better. They are stories evolving from the history that makes it personal and more meaningful. I’m a firm believer in historical fiction as one of the best ways to expand one’s knowledge of the events, both out front and behind the scenes, of how our world came to be what it is today. We all need to understand that. In MacNeal’s new stand-alone novel Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, she exposes the depth of the Nazi activity in America, especially in California, before our country entered WWII. I first became cognizant of how widespread and organized the Nazi problem was pre-WWII in this author’s previous book, Hollywood Spy, the tenth book in the Maggie Hope series. Now in the stand-alone, I discover just what a deep-seated danger the American Nazis, fueled by the leaders of Germany Nazis, was. What makes this story and information so important is its relevance to the hate problems in our country today. Philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has been paraphrased over the years as, “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” Susan Elia MacNeal has done a deep dive into research to show readers just what devastation they could face by not remembering this particular part of history. A cautionary tale indeed.
Veronica and Violet (Vi) Grace find themselves in an unplanned move across the country from Brooklyn to Los Angles, California. Veronica, a bright and rising journalism student had just graduated from college and was set to intern at Mademoiselle Magazine in NYC when her affair with a married journalist brought the wrath of his wife down on Veronica, causing the young journalist-to-be to lose her internship and leave the city. Within days of settling into Veronica’s uncle’s empty bungalow in California, Veronica finds a typing job for Educational Service Bureau in Los Angles. Vi’s pension from being a Navy widow only goes so far, and Veronica will have to put her journalism dreams on hold for a practical job.
The man who has hired Veronica works out of his home, with his wife, who is also seemingly involved in the work. Veronica finds out the first day that the “work” is spreading Nazi propaganda and building up the numbers in the American Nazi cells. She is appalled and has no plans to return to this job, where talk of overthrowing the United States government and installing a Hitler-based system is a real objective. Veronica and Vi try to report these subversive activities to the police and the F.B.I., but these institutions are more interested in catching communists than Nazis. After their warnings fall on deaf ears with law enforcement, Vi calls a friend of her husband’s in the Navy, and this high-ranking officer doesn’t dismiss their concerns. He puts them in touch with Ari Lewis, head of a spy ring uncovering and monitoring Nazi activity in California. Lewis, a Jew, knows just how dangerous the Nazis in America are and that they are targeting major installations of different cities’ infrastructures and infiltrating the armed forces. With Veronica and Vi being of German heritage and having the blond hair/blue eyes, they are the perfect infiltrators into the world of Nazi followers who call themselves the American Bund and who are getting their orders from Germany.
It’s an undertaking fraught with peril, but Veronica and Vi agree to play the parts of Nazi sympathizers. Veronica returns to work for the Nazi propaganda people, and Vi makes headway into a organization of women who are pro-Nazism, the America First Committee. The mother and daughter spy team don’t shy away from getting as close as they can to the action and the people who are propagating the Nazi way of life. Veronica starts dating one of the movers and shakers of the California Nazi organizers, and Vi becomes best friends with one the movements most powerful women. The viciousness of these Nazis is part of their modus operandi, and these women face certain death if their duplicity is discovered. With it being 1940 and 1941, readers will see the extents to which the American Nazis are prepared to go to prevent President Roosevelt being elected to a third term and to deter our country from entering WWII. The American Nazis’ vision is for a white supremacist “Christian” government based on Hitler’s in Germany.
Suspense is thick and constant in Mother Daughter Traitor Spy. It is a suspense born from the true life stories of Sylvia Comfort and her mother Grace Comfort, who were actual spies for Leon L. Lewis, the real spymaster represented by Ari Lewis in the book. The authenticity continues with other characters who are based on real-life people, both heroes and villains of the Nazi story of 1930s and 40s in California. Susan Elia MacNeal includes outstanding notes at the end of the book explaining who is who and provides an extensive bibliography for her research. This is the best of historical fiction, well-researched and the history woven into a fascinating fact-based story. The plausibility of the characters’ actions is never in question with MacNeal’s carefully plotted sequence of events.
Some books transcend a reading recommendation made for a great story or captivating characters or gripping suspense, which, of course, are all found in Mother Daughter Traitor Spy. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I’m a fan of historical fiction bringing important events and people to our attention. The precarious state of our world and more specifically our country, where hate crimes have risen dramatically over the last five or six years, demands that we pay attention to the mistakes and dangers of the past in order not to repeat them. As a former teacher, I realize the importance of teaching students with interesting materials. I have a list of historical fiction books I would like to see schools use in broadening students’ awareness of this country’s history and bringing it alive as to how it applies to today. Of course, I don’t want my enthusiasm for education to overshadow my recommendation that this book is at its core an amazing read. It’s a thrilling story of two brave women in an extraordinary set of circumstances they could never have imagined. A riveting tale of heroism.