Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).
Fear of communism and nuclear war permeated the psyches of millions of Americans in the 1950s. Public and private concerns were heightened by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he proclaimed that hundreds of Communists had infiltrated the United States government. Many writers and entertainers were accused of sympathizing with Communists and thus were blacklisted. His accusations were later disproved, but that did not stop his fervor from spreading.
In her tenth and best novel, Is This Tomorrow, expert storyteller Caroline Leavitt capitalizes on these anxieties. “You can’t trust these Communists,” one of Leavitt’s minor characters maintains. “They couldn’t tell the truth if they wanted to….You kids think it’s funny, but any second a missile could come down on us,” he insists. “And we wouldn’t even see it or be prepared. One minute we’re here talking in this nice neighborhood, and two seconds later, boom, we’re ash.” In his eyes, the Russians “hide explosives” and could be anywhere, even in his own neighborhood, “and we wouldn’t even know it.”
The era in which Leavitt sets her story is perfect for her setting. Father Knows Best gently reminds American kids who is boss in the household. Echoes of “just wait until your father gets home” are heard all across the United States as the mother keeps house and raises the children and the father brings home the bacon. Doors are left unlocked. Sunday is the Lord’s day. The post-war economy is booming, and so is the birthrate. Everything seems idyllic, but appearances often deceive, as we all know.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is at its frostiest with no signs of thaw. Nuclear annihilation is a real and daily threat as school kids are taught to duck and cover and worried fathers build bomb shelters. New phrases such as Red Scare and Yellow Menace become part of the everyday lexicon. Americans view those who are different, who do not conform, who look different, who sound different, and who worship differently with contempt. Anyone deemed not like everyone else was considered deviant.
Life seems peachy for Americans, but ugliness and fear lurk just under the surface. This juxtaposition is at the heart of Leavitt’s taut, atmospheric, and humane tale. Blending a coming-of-age saga with history and mystery, Leavitt creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere when a neighborhood boy goes missing.
Is This Tomorrow is told from three different and varied perspectives: Ava, divorcee, working mother, and the head of the only Jewish family on the block; Lewis, her son; and Rose, her son’s best friend and sister to Jimmy, the youth who vanishes. Although Jimmy is not a narrator, his disappearance looms over the novel; his presence and his absence are powerfully palpable.
Because Ava is different from the other neighborhood parents, she is suspect. Ava locks her doors when all the other doors are unlocked; she works when the rest of the mothers do not have jobs outside the home. She does not dress like the other mothers and she has had a string of boyfriends. The neighbors see her as a floozy. These things do not necessarily damn her, though. Other parents believe she may have had an inappropriate relationship with her son’s best friend. Ava denies it but admits she knew Jimmy had a crush on her. He was at Ava’s the day he went missing.
Jimmy’s disappearance profoundly changes the lives of all of Leavitt’s main characters. Jimmy’s departure leaves Ava, Lewis, and Rose stuck and unable to go forward. The calendar turns and they grow older, but they are still stuck in the moment Jimmy faded away forever. They have too many loose ends in their lives, and the burning desire to know what happened drives them.
Rose, Jimmy’s sister, becomes a teacher but never forgets her family tragedy as she desperately pleads with the principal to put a fence around the playground so school kids will not wander off. Lewis withdraws from his mother and searches for his father, who once wanted custody of Lewis but has since vanished himself. Ava feels alone and bakes pies that she sells to a local restaurant but has never forgotten Jimmy and the day he seemed to evaporate into thin air.
Leavitt hooks you in the first chapter when young Jimmy goes missing and does not let you go until the very last page. I was riveted. Leavitt provides readers with timely and weighty issues such as missing children, difference, and paranoia.
With expert pacing, the author takes her time revealing secrets. This master storyteller is meticulous and wise as she teases out every detail but still keeps you guessing. Is This Tomorrow is atmospheric and taut and has everything you could ever want in a book: compelling, fully realized characters; an intense, dramatic, and compelling plot; and the perfect, evocative setting. Everything comes together superbly in Leavitt’s skilled hands.
The title is taken from a propaganda comic book that came out in 1947 and warned of the dangers of a Communist takeover. An estimated four million Americans purchased the educational comic, no doubt contributing to the fear and paranoia of the 1950s. In Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt brings this era to life and illustrates how fear of the unknown and fear of difference transformed a country, a community, and a people. Although her book is set primarily in a time very different from our own age, Is This Tomorrow is a cautionary tale for us in the Twenty-First Century.