When the World Was Young

By Elizabeth Gaffney

(Random House, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Gaffney is a novelist and short story writer. Author of  the novel Metropolis, she also has contributed to such literary magazines as Virginia Quarterly Review and the North American Review, and she has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Blue Mountain Center. Gaffney was a staff editor at The Paris Review and now teaches fiction at The New School and is editor-at-large of the literary magazine A Public Space.

What is this book about?

Wally Baker, a girl growing up in post-World War II Brooklyn, loves Wonder Woman and science, but hates girly clothes and manners. She has loving grandparents and an emotionally troubled mother, a little brother who died, a father away at war and a black family maid who is like a second mother (and whose little boy is Wally’s dearest friend). Also on the scene is a boarder who seems to harbor a mysterious secret. The story begins on V-J Day, when Wally is 9, and as America grows and changes after the war comes to an end, so does Wally, who finds her place in the world despite her family’s troubles.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are, as I am, a lifelong fan of that wonderful novel, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” you will be drawn to this coming-of-age story about another young girl in that inimitable New York borough. Wally is an unconventional child, and as tragedy strikes her family, she finds the strength to adjust to a world where attitudes about women’s rights and racial issues are rapidly changing and challenging conventional wisdom.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “Gaffney’s affecting second novel (after Metropolis) charts the changing physical and emotional landscape of Brooklyn (and America) from WWII into the Korean War era, through a young girl’s coming-of-age. Wally Baker’s world revolves around her high-spirited mother, Stella, a doctor who gave up her profession for motherhood. Other important people in Wally’s life include her maternal grandparents, Gigi and Waldo, who live with them in their Brooklyn Heights apartment; Gigi’s African-American live-in maid, Loretta; and Loretta’s son, Ham. Wally can’t quite understand why her friendship with Ham so often arouses disapproval from outsiders. Two conspicuous absences are Wally’s father, who’s away at war, and her brother, Georgie, who died at age four. When a new boarder, mathematician Bill Niederman, arrives, Wally and Ham initially suspect him of being a spy. He becomes, however, a supportive father figure for Wally, helping with homework and encouraging her insatiable interest in the natural world. Wally’s stable existence ends after her mother’s death on V-J Day, marking the start of her journey into the uncertainty of post-WWII America. Themes of race, identity, and finding one’s personal destiny within societal expectations are all explored in this layered, delicate novel.

Kirkus Reviews says: “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. 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.”

“This compelling family drama features an intriguing cast of characters who are well drawn and realistic, while also being emblematic of their time. Gaffney’s writing is graceful and leisurely paced, flavored with nostalgia,” says Library Journal.

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