Red Letter Days
Sarah Jane Stratford
Feb 25th, 2020
Red Letter Days by Sarah Jane Stratford blends romance, politics, and history. This story is very relevant today with unproven accusations, a Red Scare, and no due process. Yet, this book is not about the current political situation in America today, but about the dark era in the 1950s called McCarthyism where writers, actors, producers and directors were accused of being Communists.
“I wanted to show how women were involved with and affected by McCarthyism, after reading about the Red Scare. My main character, Phoebe, like so many others, did not know how she was named as a Communist. Many did not know who named them whether activists, union leaders, teachers, or members of the NAACP. All got accused and hurt. I also wanted to explore the relationship between two women and how they could survive and thrive under adverse circumstances.”
The story begins with the main character Phoebe Adler striving to make it as a screenwriter. Unfortunately, it turns into a living nightmare after someone accuses her of being a Communist. After finding herself being blacklisted she decides to ignore the subpoena of the Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, and run away to England. This is partly influenced by her desire to not name names and the need to continue to have a paycheck to support her ill sister, Mona. In England she meets Hannah Wolfson who is a successful TV producer that hires blacklisted writers. The main focus is the production of the TV series “Robin Hood,” an adventure story for children, but with symbolic plotlines.
“The real Hannah saw it as very symbolic. “Robin Hood” steals from the rich to give to the poor. The shows explored ideas of how to treat others, and to support one another. Blacklistees saw “Robin Hood” as an outlaw in his own country. It was very much what happened to the Jews in Germany. One day they were living their normal life and the next day, boom, they were not citizens but subjects with no rights. There was the attitude: ‘You are Other. You are different. You are evil.’ I found the TV shows very entertaining and great adventure stories. The stories were very sophisticated with a high-class production. There was an underlying non-political message they wanted to get across to children that included to be open-minded, be a person who helps others, and push back against bullies.”
Interestingly, there is a sub-plot that involves a mystery. Phoebe is not safe since she is hounded and harassed by FBI Agent Glynn. He wants to arrest her and bring her back to America to appear before HUAC, and will do this by any means possible, legal and illegal. For both Phoebe and the reader these scenes create anxious moments as danger lurks in every corner. Those in the FBI have their own agenda and will do almost anything to promote it showing that FBI should stand for Fear, Beware, and Intimidate.
The author explained, “Everyone must decide who is trustworthy and who is not. This drove people apart and ruined friendships, even marriages. The level of paranoia became so high because people were targeted and followed. People even had to watch their words. This is why I put in the book, ‘They can blacklist someone because someone else points a finger, but they can’t shut down a show without proof of what they’d call a crime. The phone tapping and harassment were based on real events. In fact, phone tapping was rampant. Agents could enter people’s houses and search for anything incriminating. People were actually followed. Of course, I exaggerated with Phoebe for the point of the story. I do think the higher echelon of the FBI had an attitude, ‘by any means necessary,’ using the excuse that they were protecting the public.”
There is also a peripheral story of how women must face barriers to work outside the home. In London, just like America, working women are looked down upon, expected to marry, have children, and not take jobs away from men. Through Hannah’s eyes, readers can see the struggle and guilt working mothers had to face within the family as well as society. Phoebe, on the other hand has a relationship with someone who seems very willing to accept that she can work and find the time to be involved with a man.
Although politics is a backdrop, the story is very character oriented. It shows how the riveting characters connect and disconnect with one another as readers decide who is trustworthy and who is not.