Author: E. E. Smith

Publisher: Phoenix International, Inc., 2011


English writers are good at keeping their memories of World War II alive through novels and, over the recent commemorative years, television series that have filled us in on the main points, most recently in Home Fires. The focus understandably has been on Britain and France where so much action took place. It is rare now to get a personalized account of what was happening to people spending those years at home in the United States. That’s why the fictionalized account of 1945 by San Francisco writer Evelyn Eileen Smith is so important.

The reason 13-year-old Evelyn was forced to move with her mother to Shafter, Nevada, not much more than a railroad crossing, is simply that the mother was German, and Californians were considering rounding up German-born citizens just as we had rounded up Japanese, to put them in relocation camps so the rest of us could be secure. That meant Evelyn’s parents would have to learn to get along. The reunited family lived in the depot where her father was the agent and telegrapher, directing traffic on the Nevada Northern and Western Pacific railroad lines that crisscrossed in this empty landscape. Evelyn was more than annoyed to be deprived of her friends and opportunities in Sacramento, and to be stuck in a one-room schoolhouse with an uninspiring teacher, but she adapted. She took on the challenge of teaching English to a workman’s six-year-old daughter, and she eagerly submitted to lessons in classical literature from the former child actor who now operated the coal shute. Her father used his poker earnings to buy her a wild horse, and she enjoyed taming Dusty. There were worse dangers. She escaped death on a train track twice. And she accidentally boarded a train carrying wounded soldiers. As her father became more dependent on his supply of alcohol kept “out back,” and her mother began to flirt with other men passing through (not many did), things fell apart, and Evelyn’s destiny changed dramatically.

Smith is a playwright who has turned her hand to short stories and novels, including mysteries. Thus she has mastered the craft of plotting a story. Here her fluid narrative fits the time period, which I personally remember, and it made me nostalgic for those broadening biographies I read throughout sixth grade, and for eye-opening adventures of ordinary folks, as in The Boxcar Children and The Moffats.

Above all, TIMES LIKE THESE made me think about The Green Glass Sea, a novel for young adults about a Manhattan Project scientist’s adolescent daughter living with him in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the same time frame. Neither child could have imagined what was going on in the other’s geographical space – The Great American Desert or The Secret City – both artificially shaped by the fears that gripped the adult nation. Neither girl had worries about war; their concerns were about family and how to navigate out of childhood. When Evelyn’s dad relayed the news that the Second World War was finally over – that Japan had been successfully bombed – it marked the end of an era. Never again would childhood be so innocent.