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Review: When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney
Random House, 2015. 298 pp. $26

You’d think that V-J Day would bring young Wallace “Wally” Baker a boatload of joy. The war that’s lasted half her life is finally over; her father, a naval officer in the South Pacific, will come home; and maybe the government will end rationing, so that her mother’s chocolate pound cake won’t be such a luxury anymore.

75 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights, a century-old building (Courtesy Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons).

75 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights, a century-old building (Courtesy Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons).

But in this moving, beautifully written coming-of-age novel, that day of victory brings Wally heartache, which the adults around her do nothing to assuage, let alone recognize. The grand, ancestral brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, where she lives with her mother and maternal grandparents, offers material comfort, but that’s about all Wally can be thankful for. Stella, her mother, is distant, beautiful, selfish, and neglectful; Wally desperately needs the attention she can never have. To be fair, Stella has suffered tragic losses, including the deaths of a fiancé and a child, and she’s emotionally fragile.

Yet Stella doesn’t entirely realize that her surviving child has a claim on her. And though Wally never wants for good food or clothes or the Wonder Woman comic books she loves, no one in the family sees her as anything but a reflection of themselves. Only when she displeases them do they notice her, usually to punish her for asking questions about secrets they wish to hide, or for speaking her mind. She doesn’t even have a choice about what name she goes by. Wallace is her middle name, inherited from Stella, and Stella refuses to call her any other, as if her daughter were merely a diminutive of herself.

The only adult who cares for Wally is Loretta, the black maid of all work, whose son, Ham, is Wally’s inseparable companion. Wally picks up Ham’s passion for studying ants (an activity with which Gaffney reflects the action, in apt, extended metaphors). More than that, Wally finds in him the affection, praise, shared spirit of adventure, and listener she gets nowhere else. Loretta would be glad to help, but she has white employers to please. She’s not about to answer Wally’s dangerous questions, nor tell her that Ham’s friendship, though genuine, has been sponsored by Stella’s mother in the form of wages. So Loretta does what she can, which is to keep Wally well fed and safe.

The narrative jumps around confusingly in its efforts to stitch the events that precede V-J to that day and its aftermath. Nevertheless, you can see Wally’s slow, insistent progress toward glimpses of ugly truths–race prejudice, adult hypocrisy, betrayals, and class snobbery. Gaffney does a brilliant job filtering Wally’s observations through a painful, endearing, true-to-life naivety that often leads the girl to wild misinterpretations. For instance, she imagines that Mr. Niederman, a mathematician who boards with her family, must be a spy or somehow dangerous. She keeps trying to make what she learns about him fit into her exciting fantasy, missing the more prosaic threat that the reader understands long before she does.

I admire how Gaffney stretches her range with this novel, very different from the sprawling, gritty Metropolis (which I also liked). She shows with When the World Was Young that she can realize subtle scenes on a small stage, a talent I admire. However, like Metropolis, When the World Was Young has its melodramatic moments, which play worse on that smaller stage. Again like its predecessor, When the World Was Young sometimes adopts the knowing tone of portent that I so dislike (“this would be the last time she did blah, blah, blah”), and which undermines the tension rather than heighten it.

But my greatest objection is how the story resolves. Toward the end, three important characters reverse themselves, which I don’t believe, and what’s more, they do it in a twinkling, while the narrative tells the reader how they feel. I wonder whether the author wanted a quick, redemptive finish, instead of staying with the heart-breaking dilemma she’d so carefully crafted.

Still, I recommend When the World Was Young, an excellent novel about the loss of innocence.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.