Reviewed by Alex Binkley
Sleepy Ottawa on the eve of the Second World War might seem like an unlikely location for intrigue and romance. With gold arriving secretly from European capitals in advance of the Nazi invasions and Canada facing insatiable demands from beleaguered Great Britain, the city is anything but tranquil.
Ottawa author Ian McKercher weaves a grand account of those events and the ordinary routine of life in the city in The Incrementalist, his second novel. Its main character is Frances McFadden, the Commerce High School dropout who joined the fledgling Bank of Canada and is tapped to replace the top assistant to the governor. Her start at the Bank is described in The Underling, the author’s well-received first book.
This fine example of historical fiction is enriched by the presence if only briefly of an array of characters who dominated Canadian political life then and in some cases well into the 1960s. They include Lester Pearson, Jack Pickersgill, C.D. Howe, Mackenzie King, Ernest Lapointe and Georges Vanier. There’s a fun vignette involving then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret
Among Frances’ many adventures are keeping watch on a Canadian Pacific liner returning to Canada and avoiding a U-Boat torpedo. As well, there’s a secretive trip to New York in the guise of the daughter of a rich American billionaire to collect badly-needed war supplies from under the noses of American isolationists. During it she has a chance meeting with her estranged father and an effort to reconnect begins.
McKercher’s book also makes it clear what a man’s world were politics, government and business in those days. Women generally had low level jobs although Frances learns from a small group of ladies whose influence extends beyond their positions.
Frances is instructed by the Bank Governor to keep a French cruiser laden with gold from Paris in Halifax but navy commanders and senior officials won’t pay any attention to a mere woman.
Even Frances’ brush with romance is tangled up in her status under the Officials Secrets Act. This doesn’t allow her to tell the young Agriculture Department engineer why she suddenly disappears on trips and can say little about what she does during her five and a half day work week. Paul just can’t understand that his sweetheart might have an important job that takes precedence over his plans.
The book also provides fascinating insight into the relentless demands the Canadian government faced from Great Britain for financial help in preparing for war with Germany. It’s also a reminder of just how unprepared for war Canada was after the economic toll of the Great Depression. At the start of the war, there were fewer than 10,000 men in the armed forces, which was equipped with antiquated weapons, planes and ships. Over the next five years the number of Canadians in uniform grew to one million and Canada had one of the largest navies in the world.
The author also shows the crushing pressure that political leaders and top civil servants face in trying to respond sensibly to a crisis.
The Incrementalist is published by Burnstown Publishing House.