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When the World Was Young
292 pages; Random House
In Elizabeth Gaffney's smart, sensitive historical novel, the New York City skyline has gone dark due to blackouts. Fathers have left on Navy ships and mothers work full-time. It's 1945, wartime, and 8-year-old bespectacled Wally Baker is struggling to reconcile these new adult realities with her childish desires to stock her ant farm with new inhabitants and read Wonder Woman comics. Her beautiful, magnetic mother, Stella, is a doctor who spends most of her time with patients. When Mr. Niederman, the best friend of Wally's father, comes to live with them as a boarder, tension soon mounts, as he and Stella become closer and closer—an intimacy which young Wally can't help but notice. While this coming-of-age story captures the fury and fascination inherent in most mother-daughter relationships, it also manages to widen the scope of the book, examining the racial tensions of the day, as well as the upstairs-downstairs contrasts between domestic help and those who employ them. The global upheaval adds gravity as well. "How many other sins and secrets had been papered over by the war?" Mr. Niederman says, musing on his work for the Oppenheimer project and his complicated feelings for Stella. Driven by fast-paced storytelling and the changing points of view of characters, When the World Was Young subtly questions what happens when a person—or even a nation—is forced to face its naïve, irreversible mistakes and learn from the experience.
— Abbe Wright