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A Novel

Written by Ellen FeldmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ellen Feldman



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On Sale: July 26, 2011
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-679-64369-2
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ISBN: 978-0-307-96724-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

For fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Postmistress, and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave set during the years of World War II and its aftermath.
 
It’s 1941. Babe throws like a boy, thinks for herself, and never expects to escape the poor section of her quiet Massachusetts town. Then World War II breaks out, and everything changes. Her friend Grace, married to a reporter on the local paper, fears being left alone with her infant daughter when her husband ships out; Millie, the third member of their childhood trio, now weds the boy who always refused to settle down; and Babe wonders if she should marry Claude, who even as a child could never harm a living thing. As the war rages abroad, life on the home front undergoes its own battles and victories; and when the men return, and civilian life resumes, nothing can go back to quite the way it was.
 
From postwar traumas to women’s rights, racial injustice to anti-Semitism, Babe, Grace, and Millie experience the dislocations, the acute pains, and the exhilaration of a society in flux. Along the way, they will learn what it means to be a wife, a mother, a friend, a fighter, and a survivor. Beautiful, startling, and heartbreaking, Next to Love is a love letter to the brave women who shaped a nation’s destiny.
 
“Impossible to put down.” —Stacy Schiff
 
Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more.

Excerpt

Prologue
July 17, 1944


    In the year-and-a-half Babe Huggins has worked for Western Union, she has been late only once before.  Maybe that’s why in the months to come she will occasionally persuade herself that some premonition delayed her this morning.  But in her more rational moments, she knows her tardiness has nothing to do with a sixth sense, only an unsteady hand when she draws the line down the back of her leg to simulate the seam in a nylon.  The odd thing is that before the war made off with nylons, her seams were rarely straight, but this morning, she washes off the crooked line, starts over, and is late leaving for work.
The walk uptown from her parents’ house, where she moved back after Claude shipped out, takes fifteen minutes, and by the time she turns onto Broad Street, the clock on the stone façade of First Farmers Bank says eight-ten.  As she hurries past the open door of Swallow’s Drug Store, she inhales the familiar mix of fresh coffee and frying bacon and medications.  Later in the day, when she goes in to get her Coke, the store will smell of tuna fish and grilled cheese and medications.  
     A line of men sit at the counter, their haunches balanced precariously on the red leatherette stools, the backs of their necks strangely vulnerable as they hunch forward over their coffee.  In the four booths along the wall, men lean against the wooden seatbacks, polished day after day, year after year, by the same shoulders.  Swallow’s is not the only drug store and lunch counter in South Downs.  There are three others.  But Swallow’s is the best, or at least the most respectable.  All the men there wear suit coats and ties, though this morning some of them have taken off the coats.  Mr. Gooding, the president of First Farmers, who lives in a large Tudor house on the western edge of town where the wide lawns rise and dip like waves in a clement green ocean, is already fire-engine red with the heat.  Only Mr. Swallow, standing behind the prescription counter in his starched white coat and fringe of white hair like the tonsures of the monks in the picture near the pew where she used to wait for confession, looks cool, or as cool as a man with two sons in the service can look.
Mr. Craighton, the undertaker, waves to her from his usual stool near the door.  She waves back with one hand while she digs the key out of her handbag with the other.  The key feels greasy.  The mayonnaise from her egg salad sandwich has seeped through the waxed paper and brown bag.
            She unlocks the door and steps into the small office.  It’s like walking into an oven.  Without stopping to put down her bag, she crosses the room, switches on the fan, and turns it toward her desk.  A heavy metal paperweight shaped like the god Mercury holds down the stack of blank telegram forms, but the breeze from the fan ruffles their edges.  When she goes next door to get a Coke to go with her sandwich, she will ask one of the soda jerks to give her a bowl of ice to put in front of the fan.  Mr. Swallow never minds.  Sometimes he sends a bowl over without her asking. 
    She walks around the counter where customers write out their messages, puts her bag in the bottom drawer of the desk, and takes the cover off the teletypewriter machine.  Only after she folds the cover and puts it in another drawer does she turn on the machine.  It clatters to life, quick and brash and thrilling as Fred Astaire tapping his way across a movie screen.  The sound always makes her stand up straighter.  She’s no Ginger Rogers, but as long as she stands over that teletypewriter machine, she feels like somebody.  She certainly feels more like somebody than she used to when she stood behind the ribbon counter at Diamond’s department store.  She never would have got the job if all the men hadn’t gone off to war.  Even then, her father laughed at her for applying.  Who did she think she was?  He said the same thing when she went to work at Diamond’s rather than the five and dime.  Who did she think she was?  It is the refrain of her life.  She has heard it from teachers, though not Miss Saunders in tenth-grade English; and nuns; and a fearful, suspicious gaggle of aunts, uncles, and cousins. 
Rumor has it that after the war Western Union is going to install one of those new machines that automatically type the message directly onto the blank form.  They already have them in Boston, but Boston is the big city, ninety-one miles east and light years away.  She is not looking forward to the new machines.  She likes cutting the tickertape and pasting it on the telegram forms.  She takes pride in never snipping off a letter and getting the strips in straight lines.  Not that it will matter to her what kind of machine Western Union installs after the war.  She had to promise, as a condition of being hired, that once the men start coming home, she will give up the job to a returning veteran and go back where she belongs.  She wanted to ask the man who interviewed her exactly where that was, but didn’t.
            The tickertape comes inching out of the machine.  She leans over it to read the check.  To most people, it’s the first line, but since she started working in the telegraph office, she has picked up the lingo.  The check tells where the telegram comes from.  She lifts the tape between her thumb and forefinger.
WMUC200 44 GOVT=WUX WASHINGTON DC
            She drops the tape as if it’s scalding.  Grace and Millie and the other girls she went to school with say they could never do what she’s doing.  They try to make it sound like a compliment, but what they really mean is their hearts are too soft, their skin too thin, their constitutions too delicate to serve as a messenger of the angel of death.  She does not argue with them.  She stopped arguing with them, except in her head, in third grade.  
She picks up the tickertape again to read the second line, the one with the recipient’s address.  In the cables from the war department, that’s the killer line.  Fear, hard and tight as a clenched fist, grips her chest as the letters inch out.  If the first few spell MR AND MRS, she is safe.  The dead boy has no wife, only parents.  If they form MRS, the fist in her chest clenches so tight she cannot breath.  Only when she has enough letters to read the name and see it is not hers can she suck in air again.
    She has never told anyone about the giddy relief she feels then.  It’s too callous.  She has never told anyone about the sense of power either.  As she watches the words inching out of the teletypewriter, she is the first one in town, the only one until she cuts and pastes the words, puts the telegram in an envelope, and gives it to B.J. to deliver on his bicycle, who knows something that will knock whole families’ worlds off their axes.  Sometimes she wonders what would happen if she did not deliver the telegram.  Could people be happy living on ignorance and illusion?  What if she delayed handing the telegram to B.J.?   Is it a crime or a kindness to give some girl another day of being married, some mother and father an extra few hours of worrying about their son?  Would she buy that extra day or hour if she could?
    She has another secret about those telegrams from the war department, one she will never tell anyone, not Millie, certainly not Grace.  Even if she still went to confession, she would not own up to it.  Once, in the past year-and-a-half, she read the name in the second line and felt a flash of relief, not that the boy was dead, never that, but that what he knew about her had died with him.  She knows the penance for most sins.  So many Hail Marys for lying or missing confession or sins of the flesh, which always sounds better to her than he-did-this-and-I-did-that, father.  But what is the penance for a black heart?
She looks down at the tickertape again.
            MRS…
The fist in her chest clenches. 
WALTER WOHL
The fist opens.  Mrs. Wohl is the widowed mother of a large clan that live north of town.  If you take the main road east toward Boston, then turn off onto School Road and keep going past the pond where the town swims in summer and skates in winter, you reach the Wohl farm, though almost no one does.  The Wohls keep pretty much to themselves. 
She goes on reading.
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEPEST REGRETS THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE EARL WOHL…
She cannot remember which one Earl is.  Was. 
The tickertape comes to the end of the message.  She picks up the scissors, ready to go to work, but the machine keeps clattering and spewing out tape. 
She glances at the new check.  It’s from the War Department again.  This one reads MR AND MRS.  She forces herself to look away and begins cutting the words of the first cable.  DEEP REGRET STOP SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY STOP.  She does not want to fall behind.  It’s bad enough she came in late. 
She is still pasting the strips of tickertape from the first wire onto the Western Union form when the machine begins spewing out a third message.  By noon she has cut and pasted sixteen messages from the war department, enough to break the hearts of the entire town, more than B.J. will be able to deliver on his bicycle in one afternoon.  This is nothing like the fantasies of hiding or holding up telegrams.  This is real.  All over town, people are waiting for bad news, only they have no inkling.  She knows the worst, but she cannot stop to take it in.  She has to get the telegrams out. 
    She thinks of going next door and asking Mr. Swallow if she can borrow his delivery boy.  Then she realizes.  She cannot ask Mr. Swallow. 
    Through the plate glass window, she sees Mr. Creighton pulling up to the curb.  He’ll be going into the drug store for his usual ham and cheese sandwich.  He would be happy, well not happy, though who knows what an undertaker thinks about death, but willing to deliver the telegrams.  And with his car, he can do it much faster than B.J.  She pictures him driving up to a house in his big black Cadillac.  She imagines him walking up the path with the pale yellow envelope in his hand.  This is not news an undertaker should deliver.
She tells B.J. to watch the office for a minute and walks quickly down the street to the hardware store.  She is careful not to run.  She does not want to alarm people.  She keeps her head down so no one can see she’s crying.
Mr. Shaker is sitting on a high stool behind the counter, leafing through a catalogue.  There are no customers in the aisles.  She starts to explain that she has sixteen telegrams from the war department and wants him to deliver some of them, but before she can finish, he is coming out from behind the counter.  He says he will close the store and deliver all of them. 
    It is the worst day of Sam Shaker’s life, until his wife dies eight years later.  By three o’clock, he has delivered ten of the sixteen that came that morning and the three more that arrived later.  By then, everyone knows what he’s up to.  He can feel eyes watching him from behind half drawn blinds, tracking the progress of his truck driving slowly up one street and down another, praying he will keep going. 
One of the telegrams takes him to the Wohl farm outside of town.  On his way back, he passes the pond that serves as a swimming hole.  The heat has brought out half the women and children in town.
He pulls off the road and sits watching them for a moment.  Millie Swallow is sitting on a blanket with her little boy held in the embrace of her crossed legs.  She’s wearing a straw hat with a wide brim, but even at this distance he can see her shoulders are pink and freckled.  Grace Gooding is standing waist deep in the pond, her hands supporting her little girl beneath her stomach, while the child churns her arms and kicks her legs and sends up a spray that splinters in the sun like diamonds.  At the water’s edge, a group of matrons sit in low canvas chairs.  Mrs. Huggins is knitting, probably another sweater for Claude.  Mrs. Swallow is pouring lemonade from a thermos.  Mrs. Gooding is watching her granddaughter splashing in her daughter-in-law’s arms.  The scene is as peaceful and perfect as a Saturday Evening Post cover.  What We’re Fighting For.
    He takes the telegrams from the glove compartment and rifles through them until he finds the ones he’s looking for.  A sudden wave of nausea makes him lean back in the driver’s seat and close his eyes.  Which hearts break harder, wives or mothers?  The question has no answer.  Misery cannot be weighed on a scale.  He slips the  envelopes into his pocket, gets out of the truck, and starts toward the pond.
 
 
Awful as the day is, Sam Shaker never regrets volunteering for the job, though it costs him business, not just during the hours the store is closed that afternoon, but for years to come.  People still like him.  They admit he carries a good line of products.  But certain men and women in town cannot walk into the store and see him behind the counter without remembering the day the bell rang, and they went to the door and opened it to find him standing there with a telegram in his hand.  For a while they feel guilty going to A & A Hardware two blocks away.  Eventually they get used to it.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ellen Feldman|Author Q&A

About Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman - Next to Love
Ellen Feldman is a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of four novels, including Next to Love and Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Ellen Feldman
 
Random House Reader’s Circle: Next to Love follows the lives of three young women—Babe, Grace, and Millie—during World War II and its aftermath. Though childhood friends, their friendship in its adult years is occasionally rocky. Do you think the recent spate of books and movies about women’s friendship romanticize the re- lationship as we used to romanticize men–women relationships?
 
 
Ellen Feldman: Women’s friendships can be rare and wonderful, deep with trust and buoyant with humor and support. Over the years I have found my own close ties to women to be rich and sus- taining. But I do think a distinction has to be made between valuing women’s friendships and idealizing them. Many recent books and movies tend to do the latter. When all else fails, they imply, we still have one another. An unfortunate corollary to this attitude is the idea that men are unreliable and likely to behave badly. I do believe there are distinctions between men and women, but I don’t think the fault line lies at friendship. I cherish my women friends, but I also have several men friends whom I treasure. The relationship is different but no less prized. I don’t believe either gender has the market cornered on loyalty, generosity, or kindness.
 
 
RHRC: In your acknowledgments you give partial credit for your inspiration to the Bedford Boys of Virginia. Who are the Bedford Boys?
 
 
EF: The Bedford Boys were a group of young men from the town of Bedford, Virginia (population 3200), who joined the National Guard before World War II. They went through training together, shipped out to England together in September 1942, and were among the first American G.I.’s who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nineteen  of them died in the first minutes of the landing, twenty-two in the invasion. Six weeks later, on July
16, the Western Union teletype machine at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began rattling out the messages from the War Department. It was said that no other community in America lost more of its young men in a single day. Revisionist history now suggests that the casualties came not from the town, but from the county of Bedford. Geography is beside the point. Whether to town or county, the loss was staggering, the ripples from it heartbreaking and enduring.
Though the Bedford Boys were part of the inspiration for Next to Love, I was careful not to research the lives of the actual young men from Bedford who served in World War II. I wanted to write a novel about love and loss, and the scars they leave rather than an account of those particular  men and the loved ones they left behind.
 
 
RHRC : Next to Love is about women on the home front. How did the lives of the women  left at home change during the war and after it?

EF: With sixteen million men off fighting  the war, millions of women took what were then thought of as men’s jobs. When the men returned home, the women were expected to give up those jobs, but many of them had gotten used to making their own decisions and their own money, and were reluctant to go back to what was deemed their proper domestic role. Some industries that catered to women recognized the problem and came up with a solution. Dior’s New Look fired the first salvo. While the trousers and short skirts of war- time encouraged women to stride and reach, Dior’s designs were intended to keep them in place. Who could move in those tight bodices, cinched waists, and yards and yards of long, full skirts?
The recipes of the era also show a marked change after the war. During the war, women who were on an assembly line or in an office all day were still expected to get dinner on the table each evening. With that in mind, the March 1944 issue of Good Housekeeping fea- tured recipes illustrated with twin clocks showing start and finish times. After the war, the idea was to keep a woman in the kitchen for as long as possible. A 1950 dinner recipe in the same magazine begins preparations right after breakfast. Similarly, the dish that opens Babe’s eyes in the novel, which comes from an actual cook- book of the early postwar years, calls for thirty-two ingredients. But the female genii that had escaped from the bottle could not be forced back in. It is no accident that the feminist revolution  of the seventies was made by the daughters  of the women who went out to work in the forties.
 
 
RHRC: One aspect to Next to Love has special resonance with the Jewish community—more  than half  a million young Jewish men left home to serve in World War II. What affects and transfor- mations did the war have on individual American Jews and their communities?

 
EF: Those half million young Jewish men left largely ghettoized ex- istences to live among strangers  of every religious and ethnic back- ground. Some of those strangers,  who hailed from big cities, knew Jews—and hated them. Others from the countryside had never seen a Jew before—and still knew they hated them.
Many of the Jewish G.I.’s found themselves fighting battles in the barracks before they even reached the front. Often, they had to work harder to prove themselves. Some made friendships that broadened their horizons, and the nation’s. Others learned differ- ent lessons from the bigotry.
There were personal struggles as well. To eat ham for Uncle Sam, as the saying went, or to bypass it and go hungry after a day of grueling physical activity. To take off dog tags with the telltale H, for Hebrew, in case of capture  by the Germans, or to leave them on in pride and in fear of dying anonymously.
The young men who went off to war as G.I. Jews came home as G.I. Joes. Never again would they settle for second-class citizen- ship in the country they had fought and lost buddies for. No longer would they put up with restricted neighborhoods and clubs, and college quotas, and signs that said no dogs or jews. They are the generation who helped shape the America we inhabit today.
 
 
RHRC: Did the war have a similar effect on African Americans?
 
 
EF: Hardship, danger, and proximity have a way of undermining bigotry. The problem for African Americans, however, was that they did not live cheek-by-jowl with their white counterparts. The armed services were not integrated until three years after the end of the war.
Many of the approximately one million blacks who served in the war believed that by proving their mettle in battle, they could win equality at home. It did not work out that way. For one thing, the government deemed blacks incompetent for fighting. Even those fifty thousand who did see combat returned home to the kind of racist treatment they had fought against overseas. As one soldier put it, “I killed—I repeat, killed—other men in the name of democracy. Could the joke have been on me for being naïve enough to believe my government?”
But the African Americans who returned home from serving their country, and often receiving better treatment abroad, were no longer willing to accept second-class citizenship. The injustice they suffered in the military, the hardship they endured, and the confi- dence and competence they achieved fanned the flame that would become the civil rights movement.
 
 
RHRC: Babe, Grace, Millie, and their men all suffer the scars of war, from the loss of loved ones to post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time, therapy and support groups were uncommon and silent suffering was viewed as virtuous. Our own era believes in openness as a cure, or at least as a form of solace. Do you think Babe, Grace, and Millie would have had an easier time if they had shared their problems and unhappiness?
 
 
EF: I thought about the question frequently  as my characters endured pain and suffered its long-term scars silently. There is no doubt that friends and loved ones can offer support and sometimes even provide perspective. They can also confuse the issue, deliv- ering unwanted advice, projecting their own misfortunes, over- stepping boundaries. In one scene in the book, as Babe faces a crisis, she thinks about what Grace and Millie would tell her to do. But she knows that their solutions do not apply to her marriage. That said, there is no doubt that professional treatment and sup- port groups can help those suffering from post-traumatic stress dis- order and other battle-related conditions.

Questions for Discussion
 
 
1. For nine years, Babe keeps a terrible secret. How much of a toll do you think it takes on her? Does her hardscrabble background make her tougher than Grace and Millie in the face of adversity?
 
 
2. In the post WWII era, combat fatigue, or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, was a dark secret. There was little therapy, and no support groups existed. Do you think in that era Babe could have found better ways to cope with Claude’s prob- lems? Should she have insisted they have a child? How much do you think she regrets not having one? Would you have blamed her if she left him?
 
 
3. Grace and Millie have diametrically opposite reactions to losing their husbands, and both think they are trying to protect their children. Do you think they really believe that or are they merely justifying their own predilections? What effect does Grace’s

 
behavior have on her daughter, Amy? What does Millie’s have on her son, Jack?
 
 
4. Is Grace really so devoted to Charlie’s memory or does her grief allow her to avoid confronting new realities? What does her breakdown in the front yard say about her feelings toward her late husband and herself ?
 
 
5. Is Millie callous or a fierce survivor? Do you see her as a manip- ulative wife and mother or as a woman trying to protect her family?
 
 
6. In an era that regarded misfortune  as something to be ashamed  of and silent suffering as a virtue, all three women keep secrets from husbands, children, and one another. Our own era be- lieves in openness as a cure, or at least as a form of solace. Do you think Babe, Grace, and Millie would have had an easier time of it if they had shared their problems and unhappiness?
 
 
7. Grace’s  father-in-law,  King, often  behaves badly, resenting and punishing vets who return from the war. Can you sympathize with his heartbreak and loss nonetheless? How much is the sexual advice he gives Grace a reflection of the mores and beliefs of the era, and how much is simply a reflection of his character?
 
 
8. The psychiatrist tells Grace that the solution to her problem is a husband. Were you surprised at how narrow-minded America was at the time or do you think that in many ways—race, religion, gender, sex—we have not changed as much as we think?
 
 
9. How do you interpret  the triangle of Grace, Mac, and Morris? Do you think they would behave differently today? What would you have done in Grace’s place after marrying Morris?

 
10. Babe was a poor girl who married into the middle class. Both of Grace’s husbands had plenty of money.  After the war, Millie’s husband, Al, makes a small fortune. To what extent are the wom- en’s lives changed by their new economic statuses, and in what ways do all three remain similar? What do you think this says about the beginning  of the most prosperous period in America’s history and about our own era?

Praise

Praise

“Haunting and profoundly moving . . . At turns brave, frustrating, and fragile, [Ellen] Feldman’s characters live and love with breathtaking intensity.”—Booklist (starred review)
 
“A remarkable novel driven by the powerful engine of most great literature: the yearning for a self.”—Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
 
“An intimate look at how we can be dismantled and rebuilt by changing times.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“A deftly revealing . . . portrait of the changing face of America . . . heartbreaking reality.”—Marie Claire
 
“An honest American experience of the aftermath of World War II rendered in sharp detail and full of pathos, Next to Love tells us what we hate to acknowledge—that personal battles don’t end with the armistice.”—Susan Vreeland, author of Clara and Mr. Tiffany


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