DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book for free from the author, but I assure you that my opinion has not been swayed by the $0.00 price tag. I agreed to review the book on the conditions that I could provide an impartial review, and that I could provide this disclaimer for you, TMP’s beloved readers. Now, on to the good stuff: how’s the book?!
The year is 1955. Jacob Drabinowitz, better known by his professional name of Jonny Dirby, is a writer for the sketch comedy program Hermie’s Henhouse. He’s dreamed of working as a writer of dramatic teleplays, but comedy work’s not all bad. At least it gives him consistent employment.
Consistent employment, that is, until McCarthyism takes hold at the Regal Television Network. Jonny waits just a little too long to agree to sign a loyalty contract to the United States, denouncing communism and all artists who are even loosely affiliated with it. Because he has yet to sign the contract, he loses his job.
In a final act of defiance against the network that has fired him, Jonny rewrites the script of the next episode of Hermie’s Henhouse, giving a prominent role to the character of “Justice Girl” — an attractive superhero who was originally meant to have no lines, and only appear at the end of the episode.
To everyone’s surprise, the episode goes over incredibly well. And since the network is struggling in the ratings, head honcho Hogart Daniels has decided to take advantage of the character’s appeal by creating a whole new series about her.
Denise Yarnell, the inexperienced actress who filled the role of “Justice Girl” in the Hermie’s Henhouse episode, is pegged to carry the new series as lead actress. The problem? Denise isn’t just an inexperienced actress. Her real name is Felicity Anders Kensington and she’s undercover, trying to find evidence of Communist activities at the network in order to protect “endangered” American values and give a boost to her wealthy father’s political career.
In the press release for The Strange Birth, Short Life, and Sudden Death of Justice Girl, author Julian David Stone explains, “There was this amazing art form – live television – that existed, and flourished for about ten years, before vanishing. The people involved were not in the least bit daunted by the inherent technical limitations of it. They found a way to pull off incredibly complex shows. […] As stressful as it was knowing that what you were doing was being seen by 50 million viewers at the very same instant, the actors, writers, director and crew that worked in this unique environment thrived on the excitement and stress of it.”
The novel explores the world of live television, from the daily experiences of the cast and crew to the growing influence and popularity of the medium, as well as political issues that influenced the entertainment industry in the midcentury.
Clocking in at exactly 400 pages, I suspected that Justice Girl would take me only a couple of days to finish. I try to read at least 50 pages of something every day, and I often exceed that goal by a great margin. In the end, Justice Girl took me about two weeks to finish… not because it was bad (It isn’t!), but because I found that it was best digested in small chunks. The book rotates its focus between Jonny, Felicity and Hogart, so I would typically read one of these perspectives, put the book down for a while and come back to it later. When I read larger portions of the book I found myself more interested in Jonny’s story than the other characters, so I wanted to zoom through the other sections in order to get back to his story. Rather than doing that, I decided to pace myself.
This decision paid off in the end, as I was able to find an appreciation for all of Stone’s characters — even Felicity, who I utterly abhorred early on in the novel. (The fact that I disliked her so greatly is a testament to Stone’s writing, as she’s not intended to be a likable character in the beginning — she’s a commie-hunter!) Felicity actually shows the most growth of any of the characters by the end, coming to many realizations about herself and about what she wants out of life, separate from the aspirations of her family.
In addition to the alternating focus between different characters, there is also a bit of time-hopping in this novel, in the form of flashbacks. Jonny’s flashbacks were, without a doubt, my favorite part of the novel to read. I wish there was a whole prequel to this novel about his family’s experiences during the war. War stories can sometimes be heavy-handed in their focus on the horrors of the situation, but Stone avoids this by portraying those horrors through side characters (Jonny’s siblings) rather than placing them at the center of the story. In a way this is even more powerful than, say, a book focused directly on a World War II veteran’s post-traumatic stress. Here we get to see what a great impact the war had not only on those who participated in it, but on everyone at the homefront.
Also working in Justice Girl‘s favor is the fact that it seems to capture the world of midcentury television quite well. I wasn’t alive during this time and I’ve never worked in TV, so I can only speak to this aspect of the novel based on accounts I’ve read from others who worked in that environment during the time. Stone very nicely captures the frenzied nature of live television, and also the personalities of those involved in it, from the aloof agents to the anxious, numbers-obsessed executives.
Though The Strange Birth, Short Life and Sudden Death of Justice Girl took me longer to get through than novels of this length usually do, I enjoyed it a lot. I would recommend this book for fans of realistic historical fiction, or those interested in books about the entertainment industry.