Reviewed by Timothy Thomas
An interesting & complex World War II spy story
The Silent Hen is a work of historical fiction by Helen Montague, inspired by the men and women who served as spies in the OSS, later known as the CIA, during World War II.
A story that captures the complications of a life of espionage during a time of radical racial and religious upheaval, The Silent Hen succeeds in being captivating even while raising some readerly questions about which is the most efficacious story thread to follow.
In the midst of World War II, a young Lucy finds herself discontent with complacency, and decides to participate in the war effort by becoming a spy for the OSS. As she goes through training, she is reconnected with an old school friend named Margie, and the two of them are introduced to Gordon and Hart, who they later develop romantic relations with. Eventually, Lucy and Margie are deployed to Egypt to decode messages for the Allied powers, where they are confronted with hard questions and even harder decisions.
In Yugoslavia, a young Jewish girl in hiding with her Senora Nura and Abdullah practices silence with a mute hen by the name of Tisina. When tragedy strikes, Bella finds herself alone, and a chance meeting with Gordon after he is injured from his deployment into the country results in her being brought into his and Lucy’s life, creating noble hopes that are swiftly dashed.
The Silent Hen is a serious work of historical fiction that pays homage to those who helped bring an end to the war without being on the front lines. The story is engaging, but the structure can make the book something of a confusing read at times. Some narratives benefit from the back and forth between past and future, but some, like the foray into the future, tends to steal focus from the primary storyline. The portions that deal with the future do fill in gaps to make a more complete story, but it doesn’t always feel like the non-chronological storytelling aids the main plot.
The book is replete with immersive details and information on WWII spies. The author does a great job of juggling international politics and global change along with the personal stories of multiple characters. It really conveys the difficulties of living such a life in that time. These details ground the story but do add even more to the many threads to keep track of.
Helen Montague’s The Silent Hen achieves what it sets out to do: tell an interesting and informational story about WWII spies who helped bring an end to the war, in a way that you probably haven’t seen before. While bouts of distraction could find you in the structure and abundant details, readers of historical fiction will certainly enjoy this account inspired by the life of a real OSS worker.
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