I had read very positive things about Ellen Feldman’s Next to Love, which I had previously mistakenly thought was just another bodice ripper romance novel. NOT! This is a powerful novel set in a small Massachusetts town during the period from 1941 into the mid 1960’s. It examines three women who are best friends, their relationships, and how World War II affects their world and who they are. I gained much more insight about that generation from this novel, which has the ring of visceral truth on every page.
Although Babe, Millie and Grace have been best friends since they were children, they are each very different women and they approach life in very different ways. Babe is the strong, independent one. Millie is the happy one, always looking for the silver lining. Grace is the fragile, dependent one. Together they bring out each other’s strengths and make up for each other’s weaknesses. It’s easy to see why they’re so close.
When peer pressure and the “Uncle Sam Wants You” marketing campaign cause Babe’s and Millie’s boyfriends, and Grace’s husband, to enlist, each couple handles it differently. At first Babe and her boyfriend decide to wait to get married until his service is over. Millie and her boyfriend get married immediately, before he goes off for basic training. Grace, who is the most financially secure, takes it as a personal affront because she doesn’t know how she will survive if her husband leaves.
They miss the guys so much that Millie and Babe independently make the hard decision to follow them to basic training camp. Babe goes because she and her boyfriend have decided to get married after all, and she wants to be with him as long as possible. They also wouldn’t mind starting a family before he leaves. Millie goes so she can not only be with the man she loves but so she can get pregnant before he leaves. Both women endure a lot of hardships to be there. Women who followed their husbands or boyfriends to camp were known as camp followers and were looked down on by almost everyone, as if they were “loose” women. They were supposed to sit at home and be stoic, like Grace. Grace always did what she was supposed to do.
“The three women debate the issue endlessly…’The government says wives shouldn’t follow their husbands to the camps,” Grace insists. Babe does not answer. If wives should not follow the men to the camps, girlfriends cannot, not if they want to remain nice girls, as she is still supposed to be.”
The war years are ones of deprivation and hardship for everyone but for many women, they were an opportunity. Babe took a job at the Western Union Office that she would never have been allowed to hold before the war. She not only really enjoyed it, and gained confidence; she felt she was performing a valuable role. The only part she had a hard time with was getting telegrams from the war office when someone from their small town was killed in action. Those made her feel like the messenger of death and she dreaded getting those telegrams. Millie was pregnant at first but, once her son was born, she took a job at the local department store. Grace waited at home for her husband to come back and take care of her.
“She [Babe] never would have got the job if all the men hadn’t gone off to war. Even then, her father laughed at her for applying. Who did she think she was?…It is the refrain of her life. She has heard it from teachers, though not Miss Saunders in tenth grade English; and nuns; and a fearful, suspicious gaggle of aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
And then the men came home, or didn’t in many cases. The part of Next to Love portraying the years following WWII, and how that war shaped relationships, families, and the country, is one of the things that makes this novel so eye-opening. We are our history to a large extent and this novel really illustrates how the lives of people in the U.S. changed in dramatic ways in the decades following World War II.
“They fed us with all this crap about John Wayne and being a hero and the romance of war…They set up my generation, they set us up for that war.” Ron Kovic, 1986
Next to Love rang true for me when I thought of relatives and other people I knew who served in WWII as well as their spouses and families. It brought additional clarity to stories I heard when I was growing up, and why my dad and his friends never wanted to talk about it. As a child, I thought of their time in Europe or the Pacific as a child would – like a huge, exciting adventure. I couldn’t understand why these usually quite vocal storytellers clammed up and didn’t want to share that adventure with me. Even though mom and other women told me things about the war, and mom told me a bit about dad’s experience, Next to Love helped me better understand how WWII directly impacted my family.
This is a beautifully written novel that personifies and personalizes this period of history, including dealing with the class, racial, and religious struggles in the U.S. before and after WWII. It does all of this in the context of three very different women’s lives and their enduring friendship. I felt like I not only got to know these women but I became their biggest cheerleader! The bottom line is that I loved this novel on many different levels and think you will too!
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