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When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney

July 27, 2014

When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney. Random House (2014), Hardcover, 320 pages.


A compelling novel about a girl growing into womanhood in Brooklyn Heights during and after World War II; a novel about loss and love.

Elizabeth Gaffney has crafted a wonderful novel that works on several levels. Her book has too many surprises for me to spoil them by offering a plot summary. It opens with Wally, the young girl at the heart of the novel, walking through the crowds celebrating V-J day, the victory over Japan that ends the war. We soon realize that something dire is going to happen, but not what it will be. Scenes from the war years are braided into the story. We move through happy and sad scenes involving Wally and her family. She spends time at her grandparents’ rather affluent home where she interacts with the maid, Loretta, and her son. And while Wally and her relations are white, the maid and her son are black in a world where prejudice rules. The children have fun, but tension hovers. Wally has already suffered several major losses and another one awaits. Throughout, Gaffney provides just the right details to ground her story in the history of the time and place, as when Wally helps knead the oleo to make it look like butter and devours the Wonder Woman comics.

The second section of the book focuses on Wally’s mother and the dislocation of people during the war which offers new joys and new risks. In the last section, Wally grows up. She is finding herself in scientific research and love, but something is still missing.

Many authors would have used the material in this book to write a dull, sentimental novel, but not Gaffney. Although there is no big dramatic violence, she has written a page-turner. When I put the book down temporarily, I was plagued by not knowing what her characters would do next. The title, which I feared indicated a book about “the good old days,” refers to a story the maid tells the children about creating and cherishing an imperfect world.

Gaffney has lived in Brooklyn all her life, but she is not old enough to have personal knowledge of the period covered by this book. She must be credited with her judgment in researching and writing historical fiction. The mood she recreates reveals both the exuberant optimism of victory in the war and the difficulties that victory exposes. While not a book primarily about issues, Gaffney acknowledges the period’s racism against both blacks and Jews and the troubling questions about the use of the atomic bomb, issues people at the time sought to ignore.  Her depiction of the ambivalent relationship between the maid and the family that employed her was particularly well-done.  While writing about the family’s obvious fondness and generosity toward Loretta, she also shows their continuing racial prejudice.  In addition, she reveals how Loretta sometimes prioritized the needs of her employers and their daughter over those of her son, a problem that often surfaces when former domestic servants tell their stories.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone looking for enjoyable and insightful reading.  I liked this book so much that I have already ordered Metropolis, her novel about nineteenth century New York.

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