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Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril

March 20, 2014

shadowonhearthShadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The 1950s were chock-full of science fiction novels on the horror of prospective nuclear war and Soviet attack, after-effects of Hiroshima and Potsdam that rattled the collective consciousness for decades. Merril was one of the Futurians, a “family” of New York science fiction fans; she collaborated with fellow Futurian Cyril Kornbluth, and for a few years was married to another Futurian, the late Frederik Pohl. While she’s best remembered for her series of SF anthologies in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril had a long and distinguished writing career that dates back to the late 1940s.

When her maid calls in sick, Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is forced to stay home and do the laundry and chores herself – a fact that saved her life, given that New York City is obliterated in a surprise atomic attack. Urged to stay indoors by radio announcers, Gladys struggles through the day despite crushing uncertainties about the fate of her husband Jon. When her daughters – teenage Barbara (“Barbie”) and toddler Virginia (“Ginny”) – arrive home from school, Gladys must overcome the obstacles of living in a post-nuclear United States. Isolated and with only themselves (and an ever-growing, rag-tag group of neighbors and acquaintances) for support, Gladys must keep her family safe from radiation and hostile looters until they can be evacuated from the danger zone.

In our age of news saturation – twenty-four-hour cable news, social media, RSS feeds, the internet – it’s strange to be thrust back to a time where radio and newspaper was the primary news source. With no papers being delivered, Gladys must rely on over-enthusiastic radio announcers, who read off status updates and casualty lists, along with trite updates of retaliation by remote-control planes. Her obnoxious neighbor is convinced it’s all propaganda, but the Mitchells remain confined to their home, giving the book a constricted setting that Merril thrusts tension and conflict into. Barbara’s possible radiation sickness carries a lot of the burden, as does her teacher, a blacklisted atomic scientist hunted (?!) by the authorities for predicting an atomic attack. Gladys’ maid is a suspected enemy agent, one of the human targets (!?) used to direct the incoming atomic missiles. There’s a gas leak in the cellar, threatening to blow the house up. And there’s the fear of looters and contaminated survivors mobbing the suburbs…

I wouldn’t say that the book is tense or thrilling due to its isolation, though, existing in a vacuum outside of space and time. Some parts read like Civil Defense literature, urging calm and patience until some semblance of government can restore order while explaining the basic details of radiation poisoning and the threat of atomic attack. A pair of rescue workers arrive on occasion to do just that. Merril’s writing is very good, but her plotting is merely competent. Some of the crises stretch the realm of credibility – the “wanted” high-school teacher/physics professor, and her “sick” maid/survivor of the New York holocaust, are character backgrounds I found nigh on hyperbolic.

I expected a female protagonist, written by a female author, in a world relatively devoid of men, would be an exemplary character and rise to the challenge. Instead, Gladys is a hot mess of emotion. She’s often confused, and will panic or become overwhelmed; that’s somewhat realistic given the extenuating circumstances she finds herself in, but it’s more pointed when several bit characters badger and berate her (such as when she calls asking for the fire department, due to the gas leak, and is savaged by the telephone operator). She does take charge and do what needs doing for her family’s survival, and she does learn and grow during the novel; she exists in a world where men are either missing or acting against her best interests. But I’ve seen stronger female characters by CL Moore and Leigh Brackett, and found Gladys overwrought and disappointing – not quite the feminist paragon some reviews had me believe. It’s a shame when the teenager daughter Barbara can hold her own better than her mother.

Gladys’ naivete about “radiations” and post-war hazards brings to mind the elderly couple in When The Wind Blows – Gladys also soldiers through government-issued mimeographed sheets to comprehend the attack’s after-effects. This naiveté reveals the era’s limited scientific knowledge of radiation poisoning and fallout. Which, to be honest, is nowhere near as comprehensive or advanced as it is now, making the novel less grim than if it were written in the 1980s. The characters make several comparisons to Hiroshima – a recent memory for 1950 readers, as would be the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. But the authorities are more worried about “clouds of hot stuff” blowing around and take a duck-and-cover, “stay inside and you’ll be fine” approach. Rescue crews are scouring New York for (seemingly unaffected) survivors, seemingly unaffected by a radioactive rain; Gladys’ maid survives because she was swaddled in several blankets.

Granted, there’s a running undercurrent that the authorities are overwhelmed and lying to prevent a panic, and the weapons used are Hiroshima-scale and not Reagan-era MIRV ICBMs, which would have flattened New York and saturated lower Westchester County in radiation. The novel is a good case-study of the limits scientific knowledge had about atomic attack. Some elements remain valid, others foreshadow Civil Defense educational films… which this book was made into, for ABC in 1954.

The titular shadow could refer to a number of things: the shadow of atomic attack, the shadow of enemy agents used to direct the incoming missiles, the shadow of Gladys’ missing husband, the shadow of strange men – potential looters, dubious Civil Defense squadmen – looming at her front door. But most clearly it’s the shadow of radiation poisoning, something which may or may not be afflicting Barbara. She was outside and exposed to potentially radioactive rain while on a school field trip; her teacher already knows he’s suffering from radiation poisoning—though it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way – and he and figures Barbara may have taken a strong dose of rads as well. It’s the fear of radiation sickness afflicting her children that drives Gladys to the novel’s darkest point, a hospital used as emergency triage for Manhattan’s survivors. It’s the only time Gladys leaves the security of her home, and it’s a memorable scene.

Merril had a very good idea for a book, which turned into an interesting and well-written novel. However, some of the story elements are chintzy or downright implausible, such as several of the unrealistic characters and their convenient back-stories. As a character piece in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, the domestic life thrust into the front-lines, I found the novel partially succeeds. Rather than following a general, scientist, or politician, the book views the aftermath of atomic war from the isolation and fear of a housewife, her daughters, and an oddball cast of friends. That down-to-earth perspective makes it more unique, even realistic despite its aforementioned failings. Yet it falters with Gladys’ portrayal, and is now a bit dated.

While a decent novel, Shadow on the Hearth is not a perfect one; its domestic perspective is a brilliant idea, and Merril’s prose keeps the reading moving along despite the straightforward plot. But I think I’m biased in favor of darker, grittier apocalyptic novels. On top of that, it’s a hard book to find; it took me a while to get a copy at a decent price. Shadow on the Hearth may be of interest to the serious completist, but for the average sci-fi reader it’s probably too much effort for too little reward.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

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