Boardinghouse Stew: E.E. Smith
Some events in a person’s life are easily forgotten and others remain forever. As a child Eileen learned early on that she was going to have to work hard and fend for herself. With parents that could not provide everything she needed, she was sent to work at the age of 11 at Mrs. Mumson’s Boardinghouse. But, this was not just any boardinghouse and the people living there would provide their own special touch of amusement, history, education and friendships that Eileen would never forget. What 11 year old would pretend to be 13 just to work her hands and body off to keep a group of adults from starving, killing each other, petty jealousies and much more.
The time period is WWII and there was a serious shortage of labor. The evacuation of all Japanese as well as many domestic employees that did housework, cooking and other tasks needed to run any household, caused many to have to look to young sources for help. So, poor Mrs. Mumson had no choice but to hire Eileen or Smitty as she was called to run her entire household. Maid, cook, laundress, peacemaker and much more this young child had to not only managed all of the work required but the people living there too. The residents were quite diverse from a shy doctor, to two men that never seemed to see eye to eye as we meet Teddy and Howard. Added in the beautiful Patsy and the crass, brash and definitely tough hardnosed Iris and we have our own melting pot or stew filled with many different flavors, aromas and scents.
Somewhere within this group is a timid and shy woman named Margaret whose presence at times makes you wonder what secret she is hiding and why she seems so fragile. As we get to know more about Howard and Teddy and Howard’s hope to room alone away from Teddy. But things change and conversations are overheard as one young 11 year old learns more than she should living in a house filled with strangers. As Eileen learns more about the art of cooking, the various ways to prepare dishes using the ration books and ingredients available to her, we learn more about Mrs. Mumson, Iris and her military background making sure that air raid drills are followed with the proper protocol, tea is served according to Mrs. Roosevelt not coffee and the many idiosyncrasies
Indicative to each of these living there. But, things change when Mrs. Mumson has to leave and care for her daughter who is expecting a child leaving Eileen to care for not only the needs of all of those living there but the household chores, the shopping and the squabbles that ensue.
As Eileen relates the story we learn more about Iris and her prejudices towards the Japanese, her feelings about Roosevelt and her political views in general. At times you might say she goes way overboard in her words and actions but that’s what adds to the humor of the story as one young Japanese refugee decides to escape from the internment camp and what happen when Yukie shows up will remind readers as to what many Japanese endured. Eileen introduces readers to Miss Kitchen and her wartime recipes which will remind those that lived during that time period of what happens when you make meatless Meatloaf using soybeans, beets to replace strawberries and other ingredients including prunes and figs for dishes that you might never eat again. In the center of it all is Eileen who overhears conversations that she never repeats but then realizes at times only the truth will set certain situations free as Margaret and Howard’s conversation are overheard, things happen so fast and poor Margaret attempts to take her life and Eileen finds herself in the middle of a situation that she wishes she never overheard. Behind the swinging doors of this kitchen that never fully closes, many things are heard not just the noises from the rusty hinges.
The weather is hot and the rooms are steamy and one little 11 year old girl works herself up into a frenzy and the four months that she’s supposed to work there go fast but something happens that will change the way the residents interact as Eileen collapses, needs medical care and Doc, the shy and always there for everyone doctor comes to her aid. What will happen to those living there is Eileen does not prepare the meals or do the cooking and cleaning? Will they ban together and become a unit or will they continue to fight and bicker?
Each character is unique and has his/her own personality like Patsy, the stenographer who has caught Doc’s Eye. Iris, the air raid warden and welder, Margaret the timid, shy and sickly telephone operator are just the girls. The guys are Doc the doctor, Howard who claims his job is classified and important and in reality works as a supervisor in a cannery, Teddy, who Eileen hears talking in code and no one really knows what he does but has a new car at every turn. Eileen our main star and character who claims to be 13 but is really 11 and is hired to do just about everything.
Rationing, creative cooking, culinary delights and the info from Miss Kitchen that she really should have ignored, this is one story that will bring smiles to your face and wonder just why all of the characters after eating her dishes especially the ones prepared for breakfast did not weigh 300 pounds or more. There is much more to this story as we hear the talk about the war, the hated opinions and prejudices against the Japanese and the Germans and then when Yukie appears at their door things really heat up but what they do to protect him will definitely endear you to Mrs. Mumson and Patsy and of course make you more than just laugh.
What happens when she overhears Margaret and Howard? What happens when an 11 year old child decides to work as a maid and cook rather than picking peaches in a field for the summer. Rationing, displacement of the Japanese, interment camps and the bonding of individuals that were so disjointed, dysfunctional yet you have to love them. So, enter Mrs. Mumson’s guest house, never say boardinghouse, and meet Mumsy and the residents and learn what happens when poor Margaret has an accident and loses a child, learn what happens when Eileen gets really sick and there is no one to replace her and find out how one group of boardinghouse stew residents protect a young escapee, do not turn him into the police, join forces to care for Eileen and just might become a family.
Added in the author includes so photos of her family, different places that she encountered, the air raid uniform that Iris wore that scared her half to death, pictures of her parents and much more that brings the story to life as the author relates that this story, this book made it on stage as a play. First hand experiences told in the author’s own words just as if she was experiencing it all over again in 2015.
Author E.E. Smith in the last part of the book lets readers know what happened to specific characters and one in particular that still holds a special place in her heart. To find out who and why you have to read this wonderful story for yourself and get to know the six residents and of course Eileen. Boardinghouse Stew: Stew: A dish of meat and vegetables cooked slowly in liquid in a closed dish or pan or a group of people in this case with different backgrounds, ideas, wants and needs all thrown into one big melting pot called: Mrs. Mumson’s Guest House.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer