August Guest Author Ellen Feldman: How Americans Lived Better and Looked That Way Too
The inspiration for Next to Love came from two women who lost their husbands in the war and reacted in diametrically opposite ways. I wanted to use their experiences to explore love, loss, and the scars they leave.
The stories of these two young widows, who quickly became not the women I had known but fictional characters, led me into the postwar world. Before I started the research, I knew that the war had altered America, but until I buried myself in old letters, magazines, and archival material, I had no idea how deep and wide the changes went.
Before the war, most Americans had stayed put. Though some were driven off their land during the Depression, and the dreamers and the dissatisfied found a mecca in California, people tended to live and die within a few miles of the spot where they had been born. The war not only sent sixteen million young men to far-flung places around the country and world, it also lured men and women off farms and away from small towns to earn undreamed of wages in shipyards, factories, and government jobs.
The war chipped away at religious and racial prejudices as well. Before enlisting or being drafted, boys had known only people who looked and thought as they did. Suddenly they were bunking with and training beside Catholics and Jews, Latinos, Italians, Irish, and Swedes. Slurs flew and fights broke out, but nothing undermines bigotry like intimacy, hardship, and danger.
The problem for African-Americans, however, was they they did not live cheek-by-jowl with their white counterparts. The armed services were not integrated until after the war. Most African-Americans did not see combat –- blacks were deemed incompetent for battle, and their officers were usually white –- but after serving their country, they returned home no longer willing to accept second class citizenship in it. The injustice they suffered in the military, the hardship they endured, and the confidence and competence they achieved fanned the flame that would become the Civil Rights Movement.
Perhaps the biggest change wrought by the war was America’s new found prosperity. The misery of the Depression and the shortages and rationing of the war years had given rise to a powerful hunger for things. The vast industrial resources which the country had developed to fight the war turned to making products for peacetime pleasure. As Babe muses in the novel, the three friends are flush with houses, cars, washing machines, television sets, air conditioners, dishwashers, deep freezes, pressure cookers, extension telephones, Polaroid cameras, stereos, long-playing records, power tools, and every other convenience they never knew they needed. So why, she wonders, is she dissatisfied?
That last question leads to another change brought about by the war, not world-shaking, but significant. Plastic surgery as a medical specialty began during World War I and came of age in World War II. When the fighting ended, scores of well-trained plastic surgeons found themselves without patients. And millions of Americans found themselves with more discretionary income than they had ever imagined. The marriage between the two groups was made in heaven. The war ended up transforming not only the way Americans lived, but even the way they looked