A novel, set in 1944, about loss, an unwed pregnancy, and succeeding as a multiracial career woman, might seem, at first, improbable. After all, during those years in the U.S., women’s aspirations were supposed to end at being wives and homemakers, while Jim Crow ruled the roost in the South (and influenced the rest of the country). The treatment of women and people of color wasn’t much better in the U.K., where Dorine Andrews’ new book, Jack’s Gift, is set. And yet Andrews, a local author and blogger, makes it believable. The feat would be easier to achieve by setting the story in the 1970s, but by pushing her story farther into the past, Andrews gilds it with a touch of fairy tale, one she convinces her readers could have happened.
It’s true that women were briefly liberated in the 1940s, when so many English and American men were fighting in World War II, and women filled their jobs in factories and offices. But post-war, most returned to domesticity, largely until the feminist movement of the late 1960s. Jack’s Gift follows the life of one woman, Amahli. A British Indian living in the U.K., Amahli does not accept the push to return to the kitchens when the men return home from war. This is a women’s liberation story set at a time when there was little liberation to be had. Unwed mothers were shamed and shunned, people of color rarely advanced in business and government, and a career-woman was an oddity.
Andrews cleverly lays out Amahli’s unique circumstances: Her family, unusual for this time, does not reject her. She needs that support—without it she’d likely be forced to abandon her baby to adoption. Her British father and Hindu mother, who married for love, however, rise to the occasion—clearly ahead of their time.
Still, Amahli knows well what time she lives in. Jack was Amahli’s fiancé, an American pilot stationed in Great Britain who was shot down over Europe during WWII. As she pictures her dead lover’s family, she says: “What would you say if your twenty-two-year-old son fathered a bastard halfway around the world with a mixed-race five-foot-ten Amazon of a woman? And she was four years older than him and he only knew her for five months?” Amahli expects rejection from Jack’s family—but not from her own. Her parents do not belong to the era. They quickly defy its prejudices. One of my few concerns about this book is that it did not expand on how they got that way.
Amahli’s mother tells her that “nothing protects a woman,” but she could have added “except her family,” because she and her husband do just that. They proceed to protect their daughter. They also assist in her career; though loath for her father to pull strings, she quickly learns that anyone who can does exactly that. This plot device injects a healthy dose of reality into a portrait of her upward career trajectory. Yes, a handful of women made careers for themselves in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but few looked and lived like Amahli. Bigotry was far too ferocious for that. But in Andrews’ world, Amahli can display a photo of her child on her office desk— the implication being that her male co-workers know she’s a single mother and don’t object.
The story’s arc follows Amahli’s character and how she’s able to forge her path forward. Complications arise, however, when Jack’s family eventually enters the picture. Each member has their own take on Amahli, her child, and how both families should, or shouldn’t, blend. The differences of ideas make sparks fly and illuminate one person, in particular, as a bigoted manipulator.
Despite some slightly jarring details, overall Amahli’s story convinces readers. Her unique parental support, her education, and the career leverage provided by her father enable her success. But the critical element, of course, is her character. Amahli does not long to be married and she doesn’t want men interfering with her career. She is happy raising her child with her parents’ help. In short, aside from her father, she is eager not to owe anything to any man. She creates her career on her terms. If this sounds more 1990s than 1950s, well, it is. But it’s interesting to imagine someone in this situation roughly 70 years ago. Amahli is that person.
Jack’s Gift, by Dorine Andrews, is available wherever books are sold. dorineandrews.com.