Boardinghouse Stew by E. E. Smith is an interesting snapshot about life in a boardinghouse during World War II. The author tells her own story of working as a maid and cook for a summer in Mrs. Mumson's home on the West Coast in 1943.
Told from the point-of-view of eleven year-old Eileen, the story is about the interactions between Mrs. Mumson, and the six "guests" who live with her. Patsy, the beautiful stenographer; Iris, a welder and air raid warden; and Margaret, the telephone operator who has been a little "sickly" lately, make up Mrs. Mumson's "girls." Howard, a supervisor at the cannery; Doc, who is a doctor; and Teddy, whose job is a mystery, yet he comes home with a new car every few weeks, make up Mrs. Mumson's "boys". Eileen, who lied and said she was thirteen years old, has been hired to do the cooking and cleaning, because Mrs. Mumson's Japanese help has been transferred to a holding camp.
Eileen works hard to run the household. She has to be frugal in her shopping, due to the rationing, and becomes creative in her culinary creations, following the misguidance of the fictional "Miss Kitchen". Her treats leave much to be desired, but no one else is doing the cooking. She strives to keep the house clean, and works harder than even most adults. Along the way, she gain insight into various prejudices of the time, against the Japanese and the Germans. These come to a head when a mysterious visitor appears on the doorstep. She even learns a life lesson from the mysterious goings-on between Margaret and a certain man.
Boardinghouse Stew is an easy read, as it is written in the style of a play, told mostly through dialogue. As someone not as familiar with reading scripts, I could picture the play-by-play action, as if it were occurring on a stage, thanks to the narrative style in lieu of stage directions. The strong voice of an eleven year-old narrator helps you appreciate any filtering and interpretation of events that could easily otherwise seem ludicrous. Photographs of people familiar to the author, and of places and things of the times, also bring about a real quality to the story.
The story is unique, because most novels about WWII seem to focus on the concentration camps and the war being fought overseas. This brings the fear back to the homefront, and brings about a sense of reality to the daily happenings of Americans at the time, even if the characters seem sensational. It helps that it is based on the recollections of E. E. Smith's actual experiences during the war.
In the end, E. E. Smith addresses any burning questions that the reader may have, such as what happened to certain characters in the novel in real life. She also shares her experiences with the boardinghouse as an adults, as well as some experiences from writing and producing the original play.
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Andrea Coventry is a book reviewer for Bookpleasures.com.