Lorna is 43 and has one twisted heart beating in there. If she can clear out the thickets of her past struggles, it just might blossom. Born in 1900, she’s kept pace with her century. She survived the Depression, meeting her husband Bob at 18 before he shipped out to the Great War. When their affair left her pregnant, they married. He was demobbed a broken man, shell- shocked and physically handicapped. The dream of a happy life vanished. Her two sons now fight overseas while her daughter Sheila works long hours as a nurse’s assistant at the Toronto veteran’s hospital.
Lorna quietly relishes her new job — a chance to escape an oppressive house. Although she’s earned money before to keep her family going, it’s only now with her regular paycheques that the Great Depression ends. While Lorna watches those around her thrive under the shifting world, she wonders if she’s arrived too late to the party. Her sex life reduced to brief scrabblings, Lorna has almost forgotten she has a body. While secretly fascinated by the women around her — their blossoming sexuality, their expanding horizons — she’s jealous of their happiness, and determined not to let them make the same mistakes she did.
Her high standards make Lorna a perfect “matron,” assigned to observe, correct and report on other factory girls. Lorna is especially rankled by Gladys, and seeks to “break” this spirited girl, even though (or because) she recognizes her own long-lost exuberance. If she can’t be popular, Lorna can at least stop other people’s fun.
Gladys, 22 years old, is a wild child. The only daughter in a wealthy Rosedale family, Gladys’s privilege has made her fearless, with a boundless — some might say reckless — appetite for life. Gladys always got what she wanted — only what she wants is now changing. Like her idols Katherine Hepburn and Amelia Earhart, she’s an original, eager for her own adventure.
She lives in a “privilege-bubble” which, while it has its many advantages, also can be suffocating. Her cunning father Rollie works to expand the family’s supermarket empire (and lobby for profitable military contracts) while her gracious and ever-composed mother Adele lives insulated by her wealth, medicated by liquor, and preoccupied by getting her daughter married off before she disgraces herself. Fate has forced Adele to put all her eggs in this rather unlikely basket, since her only other child, Gladys’s older brother Laurence died two years ago, crashing his car into a ravine — in a way that never felt entirely accidental. The death has torn apart the family, which in typical WASP fashion never faces its emotions. Given these silent and oppressive pressures, Gladys considers the war a much-needed chance to jump tracks.
Gladys eagerly takes up an office job at Victory Munitions, but seeing what the other women do on the factory floor, wants to get her hands dirty. Turning down the clean office job given to wealthier hirees, Gladys insists on “working the floor.” She’s drawn to this most difficult and dangerous work as a way to feel alive, to connect with “real women” and feel life’s blood coursing through her.
Struggling yet unsinkable, cultured and yet innocent, sexual and yet naïve… Gladys embodies the tensions of the time. Coming of age at a time of no guidebooks, she unabashedly celebrates life’s gifts, knowing that if she doesn’t now… there might never be a chance. In doing so, Gladys blazes paths that lead us to where we are today.
Betty, 28 years old, is a recent arrival from rural Saskatchewan moved to Toronto for work. She still keeps the newspaper ad that changed her life: “Girls, Girls — we need you out east making the guns.” An early arrival to Victory Munitions, Betty quickly rose through the ranks to be a well-regarded worker who doubles as Blue Shift’s on-floor trainer of the new workers.
Having grown up on a dairy farm, Betty’s no stranger to hard work. When her mother died eight years ago, she quit school to tend to her father and brothers. As tough and lean as a strip of jerky, Betty has a fiery temper and can hold her own with the men around her. She had practice, defending herself against her father and brothers who took every advantage of a young, vulnerable woman.
She fled her troubling past to live and work in a more “female” milieu, with fewer of the men she mistrusts. Yet she struggles to connect within this new sisterhood. While others laugh and banter, Betty, with her flinty exterior – we’re killing Krauts, people – rarely gets the joke. Among her new trainees, she finds Gladys frustratingly naïve, but in time discovers a grudging respect for her. Her hard attitude doesn’t apply to Kate. For some reason, Kate inspires her to be a kinder, better person, to show the patience and understanding she lacks with others.
A hardworking farm girl, Betty has come to the city to broaden her horizons and discover her true self. Self-sufficient almost to a fault, Betty has to be in dire circumstances before she’ll ask for help. Tough on the outside, Betty takes her friendships very seriously and is very protective of the people who are dear to her. In her search for love and self-acceptance, Betty must also confront aspects of spirituality that she’s long shunned, allowing her to gain insight and self-acceptance.
Kate, 24 years old, lands in Toronto on a raft of secrets. She’s eager to please and gifted at lifting spirits — in a large part due to a staggeringly great singing voice. But underneath her smile is a sheltered, insecure girl beginning to find her way in the world. She struggles to grasp the new techniques (truth is, she was never trained) and works to find her way in this new city… she needs this job. Why? She’s on the run from her abusive street-preaching father.
While she’s fascinated by the wealth and confidence of Gladys, it’s her friend Betty (who bunks across the hallway at the rooming house) who unexpectedly becomes her best friend. Cobbling together a new identity, Kate appears to have evaded detection and punishment… so far. She’s bolstered by the discovery of new music and an amazing singing voice.
For Kate, working at Victory Munitions has been a life-raft. Born to a fanatically religious family and a strict authoritarian father, Kate broke away, going so far as to change her identity, in a desperate attempt to claim a life of her own. Because of Kate’s upbringing, she still has problems letting people in, but once she does, they become her family. Kate’s also had some challenges with men, never knowing quite what to say to capture the attention of the opposite sex. Struggling with self-esteem, but blessed with a soaring voice, Kate is searching for a way to express herself while keeping her demons in check.
A true survivor, the smart, sassy and fast-talking Vera always expected her looks to be her ticket. But after a devastating accident on the factory floor forces her to re-evaluate, she digs deep – and with a combination of brains and courage, reinvents herself as an indispensable office worker. Hard- headed and capable, Vera’s practical nature is married to the heart of an optimist. She might be able to deal with the worst life can throw at her, but she still hopes for the best.
Marco, 35 years old, is Blue Shift’s materials controller, responsible for the raw materials coming into the factory, and the export of every finished bomb. He gained his experience from his family’s fireworks factory, and now supports his mother, sister and nieces as their sole breadwinner — his father’s been locked away in an internment camp alongside hundreds of other Italian immigrants.
While he considers himself Canadian, he has found that since the war, he’s seen as a potential enemy, which is why he’s unable to enlist. Before the war, he and Lorna would have never met — spaghetti is still a foreign food — but at the factory, their fiery rapport that starts with clashes, shifts into a growing attraction.
As with most young able-bodied men fighting the war, Marco’s ineligibility to enlist makes him feel like an odd man out. An Italian-Canadian, Marco works as a materials controller at VicMu, but despite this his father has been labelled an ‘enemy alien’, detained in an internment camp. The passionate and hardworking Marco feels conflicted about his loyalties, when merely being Italian makes him suspect. Still, his kind- heartedness and enthusiasm for life have earned him many friends at the factory.
Ivan is an engineer hailing from Winnipeg, unable to serve because of asthma. Working at VicMu, he finds that there are benefits to being one of the few men in a factory full of women. Ivan is outgoing and warm, with a penchant for falling in love and breaking hearts – his own included. A newer addition to Victory Munitions, Ivan, nevertheless makes friends easily and is often the life of the party, is blending in just fine.
James, 24 years old, is smart, attractive, monied… and poised to take the world by storm. Gladys’s fiancé, he’s a fundamentally decent man, one whose wealth and refinement haven’t resulted in snobbery. Still, having been largely sheltered from the world’s harsh truths, he’s woefully innocent about matters of the heart — and the body. It’s partially why he’s so drawn to his fiancé’s free-wheeling spirit, and while he’s usually patient with her intensity, her exuberance often threatens to overwhelm him. It’s not that he’s a prude, it’s just that he’s got a lot to learn. In a world of soldiers, James chooses his battles carefully, preferring the fray of the men’s club to skirmishes in the trenches. As an American before Pearl Harbor, he’s yet to feel that the war is truly his to fight.
WWI vet Bob Corbett returned from the Great War a broken man, suffering crippling injuries that have left him in a wheelchair. For the past 20 years, he’s leaned heavily on his wife Lorna. Yet they survived the Depression and raised three children – including two sons now following in their father’s footsteps as servicemen overseas.
Eking out a meager living as a painter of hand-crafted toys, Bob is further challenged by the advent of the Second World War, as he watches his wife take her first serious job — and thrive at it, meeting an array of people and gaining self-confidence. When the war machine repurposes tin, Bob is robbed of source of income. He’s faced with a difficult choice: will he lag behind while his wife continues to flourish or will he dig deep and seize this opportunity to reinvent himself? Theirs is a marriage on the cusp of reinvention – or collapse.
Daughter of Lorna and Bob, and twin sister to Stanley Corbett. She’s in her early twenties, and works as a nurse’s aide at the local hospital, and is in training to become a nurse. She had aspirations to get a medical degree, which the Corbetts couldn’t afford. At the hospital she met Anglo-Indian doctor Ned Patel, whom she quickly becomes enamoured with. She and Ned start dating, which her parents aren’t exactly happy about.
Eugene “Gene” Corbett
Son of Lorna and Bob. Ace gunner promoted to sergeant. Had several close brushes with death in the war. He’s an arrogant ladies man who develops an attraction for Gladys. Visiting with his parents while on leave from the army shows that the war has changed him. He is erratic, disrespectful, and impulsive, haunted by hallucinations that are clearly a sign of PTSD. Dr. Patel at the hospital suggests to treat him by putting him in an induced coma, which has proven to be effective, but Gene refuses to acknowledge what he sees as a weakness and goes back to do his part for the war on the frontlines.
After a middling career, blue shift manager Harold Aikins, finds himself a fox in the henhouse. The war, with its insatiable demand for labour, has created a brave new world full of trouser-wearing female workers – but Harold who’s been schooled with notions of men never showing women their vulnerabilities, bristles at the thought of these girls taking over.
He can bluster like a tyrant, haranguing his subordinates and berating his employees, but on occasion Harold is also capable of compassion and even heeding his employees’ advice – although he’d never thank them for it.
A widowed floor worker at Victory Munitions who is close friends with Lorna. She has a young son and daughter at home. She befriends Bob while dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death and unknowingly informs him of Lorna’s pregnancy.
Gladys’ best friend. She works during the Blue Shift as an office girl. She keeps Gladys’ secret about working on the floor until her father finds out with a surprise visit. She is somewhat of a snob and often looks down on the other factory girls as a lower class and enjoys her position in the office away from danger.
An African-Canadian man who works in the warehouse at Victory Munitions. A jazz musician and singer, he saves Kate from an attempted assault. The two slowly become friends, with Leon offering Kate advice and encouraging her musical abilities.
Dr. Narendra “Ned” Patel
Of Anglo-Indian descent, Patel works as a doctor at the local hospital. Not being Canadian, he doesn’t take sides and treats wounded prisoners of war just as diligently as Canadian soldiers. Courts Sheila Corbett, even though he is promised to an Indian woman by arranged marriage back in India.
Gladys’ father and the wealthy owner of a large chain of grocery stores, and very wealthy. Seems to not take marriage very seriously, having had at least one escapade with a woman that his wife is all too aware of.