Claudette on the Keys by Joanne Culley

Author Joanne Culley turns her grandparent’s history into a novel of historical fiction in Claudette on the Keys. However, “Claudette” is not only historical in its setting of Canada and Britain just prior to WWII, but it is also part musical history, as her grandparents both played piano in the “two pianos, four hands” style. They were on the radio in Canada, then, at the urging of a theatrical agent and bandleader, they left Canada behind and sailed across the ocean to make a name for themselves in England, whose populace was hungry for the type of music hall entertainment they provided.

Ida and Harry Fernley (Ida goes by the stage name of Claudette) are a talented pair who are the victims of the depression as their radio spot is cut by the sponsor due to financial restraints. They soon lose their Toronto home and have no recourse but to move in with Harry’s parents. This causes strained relationships all around and when Ida manages to get work, Harry gets upset as he can find nothing to earn a few dollars. Ida comes into contact with Jack Myles, a British musical agent and bandleader, he tells her to come to England where he can guarantee her work. Harry is reluctant but eventually goes along. Onboard, they volunteer their entertainment skills for passage. Along the way, the Fernleys meet many other entertainers, even a Hollywood movie star couple that is leaving the USA, Bebe Daniels and her husband, Ben Lyons.

In England, Fascists and Anti-Fascist groups are clashing and Ida finds herself torn between performing for Pro-fascist gatherings and her conscience. Besides, her good friend Jo Rosenberg that she met on the ship over to England is Jewish and Ida cannot believe the mounting hatred against them. There is so much more to Ida/Claudette’s adventures in England and the Continent (she and Harry are temporarily separated as each has chosen a different musical path). There are performances in Germany for the Nazi Party and even detainment due to Ida not having her own passport. (At the time, wives travelled under their husband’s passport). Some espionage and intervention by a British embassy official add to the suspense of being detained in Hitler’s pre-war Germany.

As a female protagonist, Ida/Claudette has been well fleshed out by Ms. Culley. Pregnant at 16, then married in a shotgun wedding to Harry, she does what she can to eke out a certain standard of living in the time of the Great Depression. Ida is industrious, and when it is apparent that Harry isn’t going to do much about their situation (on either side of the Atlantic), she must take the initiative and do what is in her best interest. She is both a woman of the times and very much ahead of her time.

Claudette on the Keys reminded me very much of another enjoyable historical fiction novel one based on the early life of Buster Keaton:
Like Any Other Monday by Binnie Brennan (Gaspereau Press, 2014). There is plenty of musical and historical fact in both novels, and the fiction parts are well-written and unobtrusive, making them both informative and entertaining to read. If you are a fan of WWII-era popular music and Jazz, then Claudette on the Keys needs to be on your to-be-read list.

“Painting a vivid picture of what life was like for musicians in the Great Depression, it’s a book I couldn’t put down.”

Glen Woodcock, Host and Producer, JAZZ.FM91

Joanne Culley received her MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and her Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Peterborough Examiner, Local Parent, Kawartha Cottage, Legion Magazine, Our Canada, on CBC, Bravo Network, Rogers Television, TVOntario, and in several anthologies. Her books are Claudette on the Keys and Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. She received the “In Celebration of Women” media award for her documentary “Be My Baby.” She grew up in Toronto and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.