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Just a Little Rain

Shadow on the Hearth

By Judith Merril 

21 Feb, 2021

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You

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Judith Merril’s 1950 Shadow on the Hearth is a standalone post-apocalyptic novel. 

When her maid Veda calls in sick, harried Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell waves goodbye to her commuter husband and tackles the household chores alone. There is so much to do that it is not until well after the fact that she learns that the US has been attacked with atomic bombs. 


She can’t learn much from the radio; the enemy1 may have failed to defeat the US, but it has managed to disrupt American telecommunications. Nevertheless, it is clear something terrible has happened to New York, Washington, and other cities. The US is at war.

Official radio broadcasts reassure surviving Americans that everything is in hand. America’s defences are now impenetrable. Citizens are expected to do their bit. In Westchester this translates to staying off the phones, remaining indoors, and doing whatever local authorities direct. 

The fate of the commuting husband is unknown. The oldest son is off at college, several states away. Gladys is left to care for her two daughters, fifteen-year-old Barbara (Barbie) and five-year-old Virginia (Ginny).

Westchester is sufficiently distant from New York that it has suffered no direct effects from the attack; nothing is on fire; there is electricity, gas, and water. While fear of fallout keeps the family confined to their home, they have enough food on hand that starvation will not be an issue. Why, there will even be a maid to help out, as Veda shows up as a refugee (she avoided the radioactive rain that killed everyone else in her NYC neighbourhood2).

Gladys is of course worried about her missing husband and her distant son, but other than that … the new normal isn’t end-of-the-world terrible. But there are new problems, such as her neighbours’ heightened fear of possible enemy spies. The refugee maid? Her very name, Veda Klopak, suggests that she’s a suspicious foreigner. Perhaps an enemy agent! Gladys has to promise to keep her in custody and watch for signs of betrayal. 

Likewise, beloved schoolteacher Garson Doc” Levy is a wanted man, having committed the unforgivable sin of accurately critiquing American preparations for the current situation. Despite personal risk of arrest, he contacts the Mitchells.

Levy believes he was been exposed to radiation. more importantly, he suspects Gladys’ daughter Barbara has been as well. It’s not all fun and games after an atomic attack. 

~oOo~

Because this was written in 1950, the bombs dropped on the US are pretty small potatoes by current standards. They’re still big enough to wipe large sections of New York, Washington, and other cities off the map and yet …. people living comparatively close to ground zero (Veda’s own East Bronx) managed to survive pretty much unscathed. Except for the ones that went out into the immediate fallout and died.

Also, because this was written in 1950, the US government is shown as making a good-faith effort to keep civilians alive, without the needless political squabbling and dickishness one could reasonably expect from any modern-day effort. While information is spotty, there’s never any hint that one party or the other is blocking fallout relief to score points with their base. Likewise, nobody licks fallout off the ground to own the libs.

The men in this novel do not (for the most part) come off all that well. While Levy is a hard-working do-gooder, the husband, while not dead, spends the book off-stage. making his way home. So, he’s irrelevant. Some men are using the war as an excuse to execute out of hand anyone they deem suspicious. For family friend Jim Turner, the war is a chance to gain high status within the defence system. Gladys has to deal with an obnoxious mansplainer, fending off unwanted advice from a man astounded that a woman might not obey him. 

This book is an odd post-apocalyptic novel because it’s so domestic, focusing tightly on Gladys and her household. We see the war through a small lens: how it impacts one housewife trapped in a suburban home with the resources that happened to be on hand when the bombs dropped. (Fortunately for Gladys, she grew up during the Great Depression and knows how to make do with little.) This tight focus sanitizes nuclear war. Save for a scene in the local hospital, we see little of the horrors of the war, which took place far from Westchester. An odd authorial choice, but an interesting approach. 

Shadow on the Hearth is available as part of the Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow omnibus here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and directly from NESFA.

Neither Barnes & Noble nor Chapters-Indigo appear to offer the omnibus.

1: Whose identity is never, as far as I can tell, made clear. The complete list of nations possessing atomic weapons in 1950 is as follows:

The United States of America

The Soviet Union

2: Veda’s standard coping mechanism when she is sick is to bundle up in a sealed room and wait to get better. When her neighbours tried to get her to evacuate, she ignored them. Hence, she did not rush out into fresh fallout.