Much historical fiction and nonfiction has been devoted to the triumph and tragedy of the men who fought in World War II. But what about the impact on the women and children these men left behind?
One reader, Susan Goodman of Milton, a speech pathologist and mother of three grown children, suggests Ellen Feldman’s historically rich fictional work “Next to Love” as a place to look for an answer.
“My own father served in the Army Air Force flying twin-engine aircraft,’’ Goodman said. “My parents were only dating then, but my mother frequently told me that my dad returned from the war far more serious and quiet than he had been before.
“My father shared very little except that his experience flying overseas from 1944 to ‘45 was harrowing, tragic, frightful, and very occasionally, gratifying,” said Goodman, who added that her mother would comment in a tight-lipped way, “It was hard for me, too.”
Her mother’s insistence on not discussing what it was like at home or abroad fueled Goodman’s insatiable curiosity about World War II. “It was like an itch that I couldn’t scratch, vaguely annoying and often frustrating,” she said, but Feldman’s novel “finally gives some relief.”
Set in a small town in Massachusetts, the 2011 novel follows three childhood girlfriends from 1941 to 1964, as they come to grips with the effects of the war on their boyfriends, husbands, and personal lives. There are no battlefield scenes, but rather a focus on profound personal and social transformations over that period.
Babe, Millie, and Grace are hit hard by the war, when dozens of men and boys from their hometown storm the beaches on D-Day. Many don’t return, and the ones who do sometimes bear little resemblance physically or emotionally to their former selves. The women must confront their own loss of innocence and the uncertainty in their most important relationships.
Feldman tells this saga from the alternating perspectives of the three women as they move into the 1950s and ‘60s, encountering the burgeoning civil rights movement, their displacement from the work force to make room for the men, and discontent with the expectation of staying home to make babies and mix drinks for their men. Despite all these changes, the three women maintain their bonds with one another.
Goodman said that what struck her most in reading “Next to Love” was the vivid portrayal of the toll the war took on human relationships. “From the night before the men leave for basic training until the moment the women learn of their fates in battle, the women live in a constant state of anxiety, dread, and even denial.”
Says Goodman: “It was so poignant in the story when a messenger from Western Union attempts to hand one of the women a telegram telling of her young husband’s death, but instead of taking it, she swims to the opposite side of a lake as he approaches with his outstretched hand.
“It’s as if she imagines she can outswim fate, and grief.”
Goodman goes on: “Even the lucky ones whose boyfriends and husband’s return suffer deeply when their efforts to make the men feel safe and loved are rebuffed.”
As a psychologist, I was struck by the way the novel illuminates how, in post-WWII America, men and women simply didn’t have the language available to them to recognize, label, and describe what we now understand as classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition.
The women didn’t understand their partners’ loss of libido, night terrors, or unwillingness to share details. In some cases, they began to fear the very men they once turned to for comfort. Feeling unable to talk about it, even among their best friends, the women experience hurt and shame. Inevitably, their anger and frustration give way to depression and desperation. Moreover, with such parental conflict in the home, their children act out or hide their feelings. In the end, no one is left unscathed by the war.
Goodman also noted that the book is a “vivid sociological survey of the decades that follow the war.
“Until I read ‘Next to Love,’ I thought of World War II as a discrete historical event. But now I realize that it really set the stage for the dramatic social changes that occurred here at home. Once women experienced economic freedom, and blacks fought alongside their white brethren, there could be no going back to the old hierarchies here at home.”
Goodman concluded: “ ‘Next to Love’ helps us understand that war leaves men with wounds that aren’t always visible, but can damage the women and children they love.”
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.