A 9-year-old Brooklyn Heights girl picks up some hard lessons about fidelity, race and family after World War II in this lively sophomore effort from Gaffney (Metropolis, 2005).
Conventional wisdom dictates that American society in the years immediately after World War II was highly segregated and built on traditional nuclear families. Gaffney is determined to unsettle those assumptions by focusing her story on Wally, a girl whose home life is decidedly complicated. As the story opens on V-J Day, Wally’s father is stationed overseas while her mother, a doctor, has taken in a boarder with a mysterious government job. Wally loves her grandmother, who lives nearby, but the girl feels closer to Loretta, grandma’s black maid, and Ham, the mixed-race boy Loretta is raising as her son. Wally and Ham are the stars of the story, and if their dual obsession with ant farms is a bit metaphorically on-the-nose for a story about postwar society, Gaffney does a fine job of showing how they grow wise and slightly jaded as they experience more of the adult world. The two absorb racist taunts, dig up some family secrets and discover how easily apparently stable relationships can come undone. (The boarder Wally’s mom took in, for instance, was more than just a boarder.) The novel pivots on a tragedy in Wally’s life that occurred on V-J Day, and Gaffney expertly moves back and forth in time to show how much more sophisticated Wally becomes about that event as she reaches college age. A personal crisis involving Ham after he serves in the Korean War is relatively underdrawn, but it bolsters Gaffney’s thesis that America’s midcentury patriotism covered up plenty of emotional wreckage. None of it would work, though, without the strong central figure of Wally, an inquisitive child who becomes a world-wise spitfire.
A smart coming-of-age tale that upends a raft of Greatest Generation clichés.