Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2019 May 08 • Wednesday

Judith Merril's first novel, published in 1950, was called Shadow on the Hearth. It's brilliant in a number of different ways.

In her autobiography, as she recalls the intense and loving relationship she had with Isaac Asimov, she reprints some of his adulatory review of this book and remarks that, "I should have been overwhelmed by his praise but I was only pleased that someone who understood precisely what I meant to do had access to a major newspaper".

Further research is required. This book is so unusual and so well done that I'm curious to know more about how it was received.

The story centers on Gladys Mitchell, a happily married woman in Westchester, NY, with one son in college, a 15-year-old daugher at home and another daughter aged 5.

The enthusiast of mid-century suburban home drama will find much to relish here. But Merril is a master of the narrative time bomb.

When we first meet Gladys, she's stressed out about her first invitation to an exclusive ladies' luncheon. In this particular part of the world, it's a make or break type of thing.

Alas, her housekeeper calls in sick and the teenaged daughter, Barbie, needs clothes washed for the babysitting jobs she's lined up.

So Gladys has to forfeit the luncheon invitation, which destroys her social life. On the plus side, the time she spends in the basement with the laundry saves her actual life. Because atomic war happens that day and the United States is bombed by an unnamed enemy.

Manhattan is a primary target, of course, and that's where Gladys's husband, Jon, is. His fate is unknown to her. She's on her own with her children.

Both kids are at school during the time of the attacks. They come home but it's a different world now, and Merril is superb at revealing this world to us through the eyes of her protagonist, a reasonable and reasonably satisfied person whose fear of war and militarism (having already endured World War 2) is now joined by the realization that many people, especially those in charge, enjoy this new reality of authoritarianism, paranoia, austerity and danger.

Shadow on the Hearth stands in the middle of two other literary works. Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall (1947) was about women fighting a war at home on their own as the men were overseas fighting in World War 2. James Tiptree, Jr.'s Houston, Houston, Do You Read? takes place in a future where there are no men, only women.

In these books, women don't start wars or fight in them. Men do that and women and children suffer as a result. This is put most succinctly by Tiptree (pen name of Alice Sheldon), when a female astronaut points out that the only protection men ever gave women was protection from other men.

Gladys Mitchell's husband is missing in action and her son, who doesn't live at home anymore anyway, gets drafted into the military now that there's a war on.

She's actually managing just fine, though not at all happily, and her biggest problems are strange men who try to break into her house—for looting or perhaps worse— and the man who lives next door, who has apparently been lusting after Gladys for a long time, despite being married himself and recently becoming a father.

This guy is a big wheel in the post-atomic war world, a squad leader with power and pull. Merril very subtly paints a portrait of him as an establishment creep and more of a nuisance and a menace than anything else.

Every page of this book is deftly rendered and the pace is unerringly smooth and measured.

Incredibly, despite a brief trip to a hospital, which offers both the reader and the characters a view of how much worse things were than previously thought, the entire novel takes place inside the Mitchells' house.

(If Ozu were ever going to make a sci-fi movie, this would have been it. Though perhaps the material would have been better suited to Naruse. And is this even science-fiction anyway? I guess? It's the kind of question that isn't really worth asking.)

One of Merril's achievements is to question the post-WW2 world and anticipate the dilemmas and sorrows of the cold war to come.

Politicians are shown to be useless and conformists, those obedient to authority before morality, to be more dangerous than anybody else.

The most helpful people Gladys encounters are two men who are more or less considered enemies of the state, mostly for being against war in general and nuclear war in particular.

Merril makes a sharp point early on, one which should still resonate today, as many Americans are shocked—shocked!—by reports of interference with elections and acts of terrorism.

"l guess I should have read more about it before," Gladys said diffidently. "I … well, I just couldn't believe it. I never really believed any nation would use it this way."

"We did," he said harshly. "We used it in 1945. In Japan. Why wouldn't somebody else use it on us?"

Later, another character explain that he can't go to the hospital to be treated for radiation poisoning "Because I kept saying this was going to happen. Worse yet, I tried to prevent it. That makes me a public enemy".

But most incredible is how a book about a small group of characters almost entirely housebound for five days can zip along like this.

Merril's writing is perfectly balanced, shifting between domestic drama and comedies of manners as well as neo-fascistic post-apocalyptic horror.

There are numerous small touches that enhance the book as a whole, such as a possible reference to Poe's "The Raven" ("Gladys sat bolt upright. Her wath said one-twenty. She ducked around swiftly, to the peeping window, but there was no one on the porch. Thud, rattle. Not a man knocking. No one banging at the door. Just the tree and a window, nothing more.") that's answered twenty pages later by Glady's robin-adorned tea kettle leading her to the discovery that all real birds appear to be dead ("three sparrows on their backs with toothpick legs pleading to the sky; another across the lawn; a few more farther away").

It's not clear how well this story ends for the people in it. There are some vicious sucker punches in it. And the ending, while entirely satisfactory, can hardly be called happy. And why should it? How could a story like this possibly have a happy ending?

But it does conclude solidly and with exactly the right amount of ambiguity. So far there hasn't been a nuclear exchange between hostile powers. Shadow on the Hearth is one of many reminders that nothing at all good could come of such a thing—and, by extension, presumably, any armed conflict.

The first line is "Veda was sick that day".