When the World Was Young: A Novel

When the World Was Young: A Novel

by Elizabeth Gaffney
When the World Was Young: A Novel

When the World Was Young: A Novel

by Elizabeth Gaffney



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Wally Baker is no ordinary girl. Living in her grandparents’ Brooklyn Heights brownstone, she doesn’t like dresses, needlepoint, or manners. Her love of Wonder Woman comics and ants makes her feel like a misfit—especially in the shadow of her dazzling but unstable mother, Stella.
Acclaimed author Elizabeth Gaffney’s irresistible novel captures postwar Brooklyn through Wally’s eyes, opening on V-J day, as she grows up with the rest of America. Reeling from her own unexpected wartime tragedy and navigating an increasingly fraught landscape, Wally is forced to confront painful truths about the world—its sorrows, its prejudices, its conflicts, its limitations. But Wally also finds hope and strength in the unlikeliest places.
With an unforgettable cast of characters, including the increasingly distant and distracted Stella; Loretta, the family’s black maid and Wally’s second mother; Ham, Loretta’s son, who shares Wally’s enthusiasm for ants and exploration; Rudy, Wally’s father, a naval officer, away serving in the Pacific; and Mr. Niederman, the family’s boarder, who never seems to answer Wally’s questions—and who she suspects may have something to hide—Elizabeth Gaffney crafts an immersive, beautifully realized novel about the truths that divide and the love that keeps us together.
Praise for When the World Was Young
“Elizabeth Gaffney’s wonderful, richly imagined novel When the World Was Young cheers the power and resilience of a society-bucking young woman.”Vanity Fair
“Gaffney’s heroines are brave and flawed (in a good way).”Marie Claire
“[A] smart, sensitive historical novel . . . driven by fast-paced storytelling.”O: The Oprah Magazine
“Devastating and compelling.”Elle
“Richly textured . . . Gaffney transports us.”Reader’s Digest
“Lyrical.”New York Post
“Gaffney provides a lovingly told story of a time and a place and a house New Yorkers will recognize, if only in the mind’s eye.”—New York Daily News
“A riveting coming-of-age story . . . a mesmerizing tale.”Historical Novels Review
“A charming and incisive tale . . . profound.”Booklist
“[A] layered, delicate novel.”Publishers Weekly
“A smart coming-of-age tale . . . lively . . . world-wise.”Kirkus Reviews
“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.”Library Journal

“In this beautifully written novel—an honest and irresistible ride through post–World War II America in all its glory and its shame—Elizabeth Gaffney explores mothers and daughters, upstairs and downstairs, loveless marriages and passionate affairs, without ever losing her story or the fabulous characters that inhabit it.”—B. A. Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of The Art Forger

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812996012
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 804,868
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of Metropolis. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines such as the 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. A former staff editor at The Paris Review, Gaffney teaches fiction at The New School and serves as the editor-at-large of the literary magazine A Public Space.

Read an Excerpt



The children rejoiced.

They rollicked in the streets.

Victory! they shouted, banging on pans, climbing up streetlamps, leaping off stoops. Victory in Japan!

Wally Baker’s mother, Stella, must have been the only person in the entire five boroughs with something else on her mind, as she set out that morning with her daughter in tow.

“Come on, darling, let’s go. Pick up your feet.”

But Wally couldn’t stop looking around her. The sidewalks were busy, yet the people weren’t going anywhere. They were celebrating—laughing, talking, crying. Halfway down the block, Wally stopped completely. She reached down, pulled up her kneesocks, and stood there, taking it all in.

On the other side of the street she saw the milkman, Sylvester, sitting on the back of his truck, which looked awfully full of milk for this time of the morning. He waved at them.

“Morning, Syl!” called her mother. “What about the milk?”

“Self-service today,” he answered, reaching into the body of his truck and rising to meet them with a quart in each hand. “Take these to your mother if you’re going by there, will you, Miz Baker?”

“Sure, Syl.”

But instead of handing her the milk, the milkman embraced Wally’s mother, and suddenly, before Stella had a chance to disengage, they were dancing. Wally found the cool, thick neck of a bottle thrust into her hands. Syl held the other bottle pressed against her mother’s back. He led her out between the parked cars, and they bobbed in time to Syl singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Out in the street, more couples joined in.

As Syl spun her, Stella’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Her red lips opened, and she laughed. What charming nonsense, she thought, what madness!

Others cheered or sang along. Cars gave way.

Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. Wally’s mother broke away from the milkman.

“Thank you for the dance, Mr. Miller,” she said, taking the milk from him and turning back to her daughter.

“Wallace? Come along now. We’ve got to get going.”

But how could Wally go? All the neighborhood children were out. The two most popular girls from her class ran by, their fathers’ air-warden helmets jouncing up and down on their small heads and American flags fluttering between their outstretched arms.

“Mother, look—that’s Claire Rensselaer, in a helmet!”

“Why so it is,” laughed Stella.

It was the hot end of summer vacation, but kids weren’t bothering with the standard games of the season. No stickball, hopscotch, jump rope, four square. No pushing miniature perambulators or picking up jacks. None of the usual posses of girls and boys walking toward the piers or the subway with rolled-up towels, embarking on one of the city’s swimming excursions, be it dock jumping or the beach at Coney or Staten Island. They were milling about, like their parents. They were smiling, like Syl. They were waving tiny flags attached to pencils. They were showing their glee.

Wally just wanted to be one of them.

“I don’t want to go to Gigi’s, Mother,” Wally said, tucking her brown hair defiantly behind her ears. “I want to stay out.”

The coattails of Stella Baker’s blue wool suit flared. The carefully formed waves of her hair swooped forward to the edge of her jaw, then receded as she swung around.

“Darling—” She was exasperated now. “This is not a debate.”

“I’m not some baby, like Georgie. I don’t need to be sat for.”

“Don’t speak about your brother, Wally.”

Stella did not want to be angry with her daughter. She didn’t want to burst into tears in front of her, either. Why couldn’t the child just cooperate for once? She got herself behind Wally, grasped her daughter gently but firmly by the shoulders, and guided her down the block.

“I’ll just go straight out again as soon as I get there,” Wally whined.

“That’s between you and Loretta.”

Wally and her mother had both been caught up in the morning newscast, enraptured by the idea of radio detecting and ranging, the secret technology that had improved the American fleet’s ability to defend itself in the Pacific and made it far more lethal to the enemy. They knew now that the sea war had been won by RADAR. RADAR had probably saved Wally’s father’s life many times over, without their even knowing it existed. It had been impossible to hear too much about it.

“Aren’t you proud to be an American today?” her mother had asked her when the broadcast ended. But that was when they’d realized they were late.

Wally walked, but not quickly enough for her mother. She was still so busy looking at the people, thinking about RADAR and peace. Soon, she imagined, there’d be unlimited sugar and no air-raid warnings and streetlights that shone reassuringly all night, every night.

Years later, she would remind herself of the dance Stella had allowed herself that morning. She would learn that her mother had smiled at Boris the doorman when she went back home at midday, because Boris told her so, although Wally always wondered what had made him remember that smile. It was V-J Day. Hadn’t positively everyone smiled at him that day? She knew Stella had ridden the elevator up to their apartment—surely setting her handbag down on the red leather bench at the back, the bench that no one but Wally ever actually sat on. She had gone to the kitchen and baked a pound cake. Wally could picture her mother eating the first slice of that cake while sitting at the enamel-topped kitchen table. Maybe it was the full bow of her lower lip, or the way she flared her nostrils, inhaling as she chewed, but Stella Baker had a beautiful way of eating. What did it mean that on that day, when she was supposed to be at work, she had gone home and baked a cake?

“Mother,” Wally said, loudly enough to carry over the jubilant street noise and the clip-clip-clip of her mother’s shoes. “Where was Mr. Niederman last night?”

“Pardon me?”

Wally knew it wasn’t her business to keep tabs on the boarder the Bakers had taken in for the war effort, but she had a theory about him, and she couldn’t let it lie.

“Where was Mr. Niederman last night? He wasn’t there when I went to bed, and he wasn’t there this morning.”

“That’s a nosy question, Wally.”

“I don’t think so,” Wally said, coming to a halt.

“Walk. As a matter of fact, he went back to New Jersey for a night or two, to celebrate the holiday with his family.”

“That’s what he told you. But don’t you think it’s interesting that he vanished the very night before the Allies’ secret weapon was announced to the world? I think he was probably involved.”

“That’s quite fanciful, Wally. Now, could you walk?”

“All right, but, Mother—if he was really helping figure out RADAR, then we helped win the war, too, just by giving him a room to stay in! I’d sort of like to apologize for calling him a spy if he really was a hero after all, just like Daddy.”

“Wally,” said her mother, laughing, “isn’t it a little late to cheer him on, now the war is over? Not to mention you still seem to think he’s a liar.”

“He’s just mysterious. He always seemed like a spy. Right? Don’t you think he seemed like a spy at first?”

“No, not to me he didn’t. I always liked him.”

Wally came to a complete stop. Her mother’s arm stretched long before their hands separated.

Her mother certainly hadn’t always liked him. At first, she hadn’t even wanted him to come, and she’d been very rude to him in the beginning. When had that changed? At what point had her mother uncovered the truth? Wally stared at her mother, willing her to look her in the eye, but Stella wouldn’t do it. Wally knew she was hiding something.

“You always liked him?”

“What?” asked Stella, glancing down at her watch, then touching the corner of her lip as if to be sure no lipstick was caught in the crease.

“That’s simply not true, Mother. Why would you say that?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re lying, Mother.”

“Wallace, you are being impertinent!”

“Do you know his secret?”

“What makes you think he has a secret? And that’s the end of the discussion.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence until, at last, they were standing before the wide stoop of Wally’s grandparents’ brownstone.

“Go on up now. Tell Gigi and Waldo I’m running late and that I can’t come in. And be a good girl today.”

“Why do you have to work on the biggest holiday in the world? Everyone else has the day off.”

“People are sick, and more will get sick today, just like every day. They still need caring for. You know that. Now, have a happy V-J Day, darling,” she said, tousling Wally’s hair and crouching to plant a kiss on her daughter’s cheek.

“Bye,” Wally said, trudging up the stairs, disappointed, once again. For the past two years, since she returned to work, it seemed to Wally her mother had spent more time with her patients than with her daughter.

Just standing still without moving an arm, Stella waited until Wally pushed through the great double doors of her grandparents’ house.

“Bye-bye,” she said.

When she heard the door slam, she turned and hurried back up the street, returning the way she had come.

Inside, Wally rubbed her cheek, knowing there would be a ruby smear, then headed to the big sunny kitchen that overlooked the garden and harbor.

“Happy V-J Day!” she said to Loretta, who was washing the breakfast dishes.

“Happy V-J Day, String Bean.”

Wally found Ham in the basement, feeding tiny bits of chopped apple to the ants he kept in an old five-gallon pickle jar.

“Hey, Wally.”

“Come on, Ham, we’ve gotta get outside—there’s a celebration going on.”

“Like in Times Square? It was on the radio.”

“Maybe not that big. Hey, let me put one in.” She took a piece of apple from Ham and dropped it on top of the soil and sand, a little distance from the others. She peered through the side of the jar, watching the gleaming brown bodies of the ants as they moved along the dark tunnels that were up against the glass.

“Everyone’s out in the street, you know, gathering—all the grown-ups and all the kids, from all the schools. I saw that bunch of guys you’re friends with.”

“Posse’s out in force, huh? I guess we should go, too.”

“Don’t you want to?”

“Sure, I do. But, Wally, listen, I’ve been thinking about RADAR. Did you hear all that about RADAR on the radio this morning? How they send out signals that bounce off enemy ships and give their position away?”

“I’m pretty sure my father has RADAR on his ship.”

“Probably does. I figure the ants might be using radio waves, too. We’ve just got to figure out how to detect them.”

“That would explain why they wave their antennae at each other,” mused Wally.


“We should ask Mr. Niederman. My mother and I think he was working on RADAR all this time.”

“Mr. Niederman, really? What makes you think that?”

“Because he’s a mathematician, and he was excused from the draft, and he didn’t enlist, but he’s not sick. So we know he was doing some sort of secret stuff.”

They tromped back up from the basement to the kitchen and flung open one of Loretta’s vast kitchen cabinets, looking for noisemakers to take outside.

“RADAR’s not the only secret project they had in the whole war, you know,” Ham said.

“You just don’t like him because—” Wally said, swallowing the last part of her sentence, “he’s Jewish.”

“You’re right, I don’t like him—because he always talks about me like I’m not even there. ‘Are you and your friend going to the pool again today, Wally?’ ‘Are you and your friend going to the natural history museum?’ Can’t he remember my name after two years? It’s just three letters.”

“Aw, Ham, it’s just because he’s from New Jersey. He’s not used to black and white people being friends. He doesn’t know any better.”

“You used to say it was because he was a Nazi.”

“Well, that was before I realized he was Jewish. Anyway, he did help our side win the war with RADAR.”

“He did not.”

“Did too.”

“What you two squabbling about?” Loretta demanded from the other side of the cabinet door. “ ’Cause you know I don’t like bickering.”

“Sorry, Mama.”

“Sorry, Loretta.”

“And as for Mr. N. from New Jersey, leave it, Ham. Let bygones be bygones.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Wally came up with a copper-bottomed saucepan, and Ham found the enormous funnel his mother used to strain stock. They headed for the front door.

“Wait up now, Wally,” called Loretta. She extended her arm, holding out a large wooden spoon. “You’ll be needing something to bang with—and I don’t want it to be a rock.”

“Thanks, Loretta.”

“And you, Ham, don’t you lose my funnel, child.”

“Awright, Mama,” Ham said. Then, as they walked outside and down the steps, he proclaimed through his new megaphone, in his best Edward R. Murrow voice: “Happy V-J Day to the people of America. Last night in Times Square, record numbers assembled to celebrate the peace. This morning, in towns and cities all across the nation, even the little children have turned out in the streets, marching to express their joy.”

Wally and Ham marched with the neighborhood children all morning. Shopkeepers were giving out penny candy and trinkets. Even Mr. Merganser, the grumpy, asthmatic druggist on Montague Street, had cracked open rolls of Necco wafers, cases of them it seemed, and emptied them into a great apothecary jar that he set out on a table beside his door. The children reached in, scooped up fistfuls of powdery pastel coins, then ran away again feeling as rich as if they’d gotten real money.

By midday, only about twenty kids remained—the ones with less strict mothers, or mothers who had to work, which included Wally and Ham. They were exhausted but happy. Their daddies would be coming home. Wally thought about her father, but she could only summon images from the photographs on their living room mantelpiece: the formal wedding portrait in which the train of her mother’s gown was arranged in a puddle of silk before the calmly smiling couple, a snapshot of him with Georgie on his knee, the military portrait that had been taken in his crisp new uniform before he sailed away. His return was hard to imagine, it had been so long.

Claire Rensselaer, the most popular girl in Wally’s class, came up and linked her arm in Wally’s. Over the course of the morning, the two of them had gradually become the most enthusiastic merrymakers of the girls from their class. Once, when Ham and some of his buddies from P.S. 8 had run past, Claire asked: “You know him, right? Doesn’t he work for your granny?” When Wally shrugged yes, she said, “So, go over there. Talk to him. We can’t let all the big boys leave.”

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