Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the wives behind, all of their lives are changed.
At first the plot sounds like any other wartime novel, but after a slightly slow beginning, this picks up steam. What I liked about this was Ms. Feldman’s focus on the women. Certainly, the men and their sacrifices as soldiers and veterans are an absolutely essential part of the novel, but it gives equal time to the women and their struggles.
(It made me think of my grandparents’ own missing years (see this post), and of my grandmother writing to my grandfather about going into town with her sisters, and with news about who was coming home from the war.)
Next to Love gives the reader a glimpse into an era that is quickly being forgotten, with approximately 550 World War II veterans dying each day. At times, it almost seems as if Ms. Feldman is packing too much cultural and societal change into this – but it was truly a time when so much was changing. A lot of issues are explored here, many of which (post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, racial relations, early widowhood, rape – just to name a few) still carry stigmas today.
In interviews, author Ellen Feldman mentions the influence of the Bedford Boys in this novel. From Amazon.com:
Q: In your acknowledgments you give partial credit for your inspiration to the Bedford Boys of Virginia. Who are the Bedford Boys?
A: 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.
Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, is an excellent historical fiction author who is becoming one of my favorites. (On my Kindle – thanks to NetGalley – is her new novel, The Unwitting, which was published earlier this month.) Several years ago my aunt lent me Lucy, Ellen Feldman’s historical fiction novel about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, and I loved it (and now my aunt knows where the book is, because I never returned it to her). I requested Next to Love from NetGalley and wound up listening to it on audio, which I enjoyed. The production and Abby Craden’s narration are both excellent.