Red Letter Days
The “Red Scare” of 1950s US – a panic fueled by fears of Communists infiltrating and influencing US culture – is made intimate and real when two women are personally impacted by the finger-pointing accusations. Screenwriter Phoebe is blacklisted from her work writing for a detective show and instantly finds herself ostracized and ignored by those in her life; subpoenaed for a show trial, she instead flees to London. A tip leads her to Hannah Wolfson, a fictionalized imagining of American ex-pat producer Hannah Weinstein. Like the original Weinstein, Stratford’s Wolfson slyly fights against the Communist hysteria with a Robin Hood television show, written by blacklisted screenwriters such as Ring Lardner, Jr.
Hired temporarily on the show, Phoebe is determined to improve her craft and dives into researching medieval Britain and Robin Hood, working on draft after draft of an episode for the show. But the “blacklist” label is never far behind, and when Phoebe begins getting menacing notes about the subpoena she dodged, she and Hannah both find themselves trying to preserve their professional successes as well as their personal happiness.
Stratford’s book is quick-paced and manages to balance background information and descriptive detail without weighing down the story. The unbelievable horror of the blacklist and trials is depicted in a growing tension breathing down the necks of Hannah and Phoebe; Stratford’s Author’s Note makes clear the seemingly unbelievable moments were based in historical fact. Still, the heart of the book is about friendship, professional ambition, and loyalty, and both Hannah and Phoebe are compelling, energetic heroines with fulfilling emotional arcs. A satisfying read with elements that are unnervingly relevant today.