by Judith Merril
I’ve somehow been consumed with reading Cold War fiction focused on the Atomic Bomb/Nuclear War. I think I’m working up to writing some sort of criticism, but for now I’ve been enjoying the ride through a history of paranoia. In what I’ve read so far, there are many ideas echoing the fab-50’s images that have been sold to us for decades—the “nuclear” family with a mom, dad, son and daughter. The home in suburbia with neighbors playing Bridge on weekends while sipping lemonade or tiki-inspired cocktails. And the completely outrageous idea that that somehow people can survive a full-scale nuclear war.
In Judith Merril’s novel Shadow on the Hearth, published in 1959, Merril drops us into Gladys Mitchell’s home somewhere in Westchester County, New York. Gladys’ husband works in New York City, and on the day the Mitchells’ ethnic housekeeper Veda calls out of work sick, the Ruskies attack and drop bombs all over the United States. Left alone to do all the housework, Gladys blows off an afternoon luncheon with the posh crowd in her neighborhood. Because Gladys never leaves her home, she is spared the threat of receiving any radiation from the bombs that have dropped close to her home. Her neighborhood is also spared the blasts and the fires, but the wind and fallout are a threat.
Gladys’ two children are driven home from school—Virginia and Barbara—and Gladys is filled with relief…Until one of the “Commie” school teachers (Dr. Gar Levy) who risks being caught during curfew warns Gladys that her oldest daughter, “Babsy” (who thinks that name is for babies!), may have been exposed to radiation. What ensues throughout the rest of the novel is panic and anxiety over who has received lethal dosages of radiation. Added to that, Gladys eventually hides Dr. Levy from the local Civil Defense leader (Mr. Turner) who menacingly visits the Mitchell home routinely without announcement.
It seems Merril set out to write a novel about the dangers of atomic bombs and the threat of nuclear war by focusing not on the blast but the dangers of radiation and that threat which imposed itself on American families. The sad thing is, with Gladys home alone, you’d expect to see a woman rise to the occasion and keep calm and stability in her home. Instead, Gladys is a weak woman who barely keeps her head most of the time. She comes to rely on Dr. Levy, and manipulates Mr. Turner to get the things she needs and to discourage the things she doesn’t want or wish to do. She is under a constant state of panic, which is a bit unfair to any woman, any parent, really. The characters in Merrril’s book are quintessential 1950’s stereotypes who are eventually saved by modern medicine and MANkind. That is, all is well when Gladys has men to help her cope.
The only fair treatment of character in Shadow on the Hearth is the character of 15-year-old Barbara, a young woman not afraid to speak her mind and is determined to be heard. Gladys eventually comes to terms with the fact that her oldest daughter is now a young woman and not a child, a conflict tried and true in any writing. But Barbara is also an early feminist—she’s not a young woman walking in the shadow of her clichéd mother, she’s fighter, someone with agency and she’s gonna use it.
Merril’s prose is solid and the story is a good read. But Merril’s science is a bit off. If the issue of radiation is such a threat, and the short yet highly destructive war caused as much damage as readers are led to believe, then the ending doesn’t seem realistic, and in the end, neither do most of the characters.