Reviewed by Alex Binkley
A high school dropout in a stuffy government town working at a new bank might not sound like the most gripping elements for a novel but author Ian McKercher makes all three come alive in The Underling.
The book is an historical fiction account of Ottawa during the depression of the 1930s leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. A solid but bored student from a broken working class family, Frances McFadden parlays an unexpected opportunity to work into a heady career.
She begins as the secretary/office manager at a government office, which is laying the foundation for the creation of a central bank in Canada. Before long, she is essentially running the Canadian Financial Resources Agency gathering information and making contacts that will be vital to the successful launch of the Bank of Canada over the objections of the country’s banking community. At the last minute she finds a way for the new Bank of Canada governor to retain her and her colleagues from the Agency when the Bank is launched.
Not only does she meet the heads of Canada’s main banks as well as two prime ministers, she also discovers a German spy and wins the confidence of much older women with real political and social influence in a government town. In between, she has run ins with a local crime gang, caterers and obstinate bankers and travels to Europe on a clandestine mission as war is breaking out to help rescue Poland’s gold reserves from the Nazis.
Through all this she lives with the memory of her absent father, a bitter mother and a sister who has recently died of tuberculosis. When the mother dies after being struck by a street car, she has to cope with selling the family house and finding a new home, an episode that shows her resiliency and determination.
McKercher makes the most of Frances’s resourceful character and ends the story with a great line. Invited on a date to a movie, Frances says, “Next to curiousity, popcorn is my greatest weakness.” His fans are waiting for a sequel, which the author is aiming to release in 2015. Readers not familiar with Canada’s capital city may tire of all the local details worked into the story but McKercher does manage to weave many of the leading figures of the period into the story along with much of old Ottawa’s historical downtown buildings and streets.
The Underling is published by General Store Publishing House of Renfrew, Ontario.