NESFA Members' Reviews

Shadow on the Hearth

by Judith Merril

Doubleday, 1950

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This is Merril's first novel, a post-nuclear war survival story. Some relatively small number of atomic bombs are dropped on major cities; there's a lot of damage, but not total social collapse. Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters, Barbara (age fifteen), and Ginny (five), struggle through the next week under increasingly difficult conditions. Civil government has broken down and been replaced by emergency authorities and the Security Office. The family's major contact with authority under the new regime is their local "emergency squadman", Jim Turner, a neighbor who is displaying a rather creepy interest in Gladys along with excellent skills at turning the emergency into an opportunity to build his own personal power base. The Mitchells' maid, Veda, is regarded by the Security Office as a suspicious character because she stayed home sick on the day of the attack, shut up tight in her rented room. Barbara's science teacher is hiding out from Security, because his past record of predicting a nuclear war and warning of the dangers makes him not just suspicious, but clearly hostile, in Security's paranoid worldview. Gladys herself is a rather silly but basically decent woman, who tries to pretend that everything is normal because she believes that that's her job as the mother. She's slow to believe important information that calls into question the perfect honesty and perfect judgment of constituted authority, slow to admit even to herself what Turner is doing, and slow to recognize both the dangers and the advantages of his interest, but ultimately willing to take major risks to protect those she has become responsible for. This is an inevitably dated, but nicely done story from the early Cold War.

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