Do You Have a Moment to Discuss the Gospel of Our Lady, Mrs. Pollifax?

It’s been almost three years since I posted an article on Persephone. How are you? I’ve missed you! You’re so pretty! I like your earrings! Man, this week, right?

But, really. This week, right? There are so many horrible things I want to talk about, but I can’t find the words. Sometimes internet rage simply fails us. The problems are too big. Instead, I want to talk to you about Mrs. Pollifax and what she can do for you.

Cover of The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

The Mrs. Pollifax books are a series of old lady spy novels written by Dorothy Gilman. Yes, that’s right. I said old lady spy novels. Do you have enough old lady spy novels in your life at this time? I assure you, you don’t. The first of the novels was written in 1966, and the last in 2000. Unfortunately, Gilman passed away in 2012 so there won’t be any more, but on the other hand it’s always nice to know where a series begins and ends. I’m looking at you, Mr. G. R. R. M.

Mrs. Pollifax is a retired widow with two grown children who has become bored with her garden club commitments and is feeling useless, depressed, and vaguely suicidal. Her doctor urges her to seek new meaning in her life, and she decides, as one does, to show up at the CIA to apply for work as a spy. Delightfulness ensues.

But, Kelsium, you are saying, with all the shit going down in the world, much of which I do not approve and is perpetrated by our own government, some of which is even perpetrated by the CIA itself, why on earth would I want to read these novels that glorify these activities? Didn’t the CIA do a whole lot of super messed up stuff during the exact time period these books take place? And that would be a valid question! Because yes, they did! These are things we should ask ourselves about the media we consume! However, we are dealing with the realm of old lady spy fiction, which is James Bond movies for the Murder She Wrote set, of which you are one, don’t lie. If I, two hues short of full on red myself, can enjoy these books I believe you can, too.

I won’t pretend like there isn’t a certain amount of American exceptionalism in these novels. They are, after all, about a CIA spy during the Cold War. And I cannot say that I have recently gone through all of them with a fine tooth comb seeking out anything potentially objectionable. What I can say is that more often than not these books are not so much on the side of U.S. imperialism as they are on the side of empathy, democracy, open-mindedness, and optimism about the human condition. Mrs. Pollifax performs her spy duties with an amateur eye, one that looks at new experiences with a sense of adventure rather than paranoia, and greets new acquaintances with an enthusiasm for understanding what makes them tick. She is kind, resorts to violence only when necessary—generally with a flawlessly dispatched karate blow, but only in later novels once she’s learned it–and goes about her business with the kind of unflappable pragmatism I think Persephoneers in particular will appreciate. Above all she is a person who observes and listens and adjusts her actions accordingly, which are qualities that we all could use a little extra of these days. Probably the intelligence community could, too.

These books have been my refuge on and off since I was an old lady spy in a child’s body. I listened to them all on audiobook while driving back and forth six hours each way to be with my mom during her cancer treatments for most of last year. Lately, I’ve been listening to them from the beginning again. When things get bad at work, when I can’t deal with each new rapid fire report of abuse and discrimination on my Twitter feed, when I find myself gradually working into a rage over the complete and utter unacceptability of Southern California traffic and lackluster delis (this is a point I am not willing to concede, please do not try me), I just put on my headphones and say SHUT UP, I’M LISTENING TO MY OLD LADY SPY STORIES.

So go forth, Persephoneers, and find these books! You can buy them on Amazon, if your politics allow, or you can likely find them at your local library or used bookstore. What are your literary retreats? Please share in the comments!

By (e)Kelsium

Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

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