Ellen Feldman on those left behind

14/10/2011 by Alice O'Keeffe

Love and war are the twin themes of Ellen Feldman's deeply moving new novel Next to Love, which examines how war shapes the lives of those left behind

Next to Love opens on 17th July, 1944, in a Western Union office in a small New England town. With the men away fighting, Babe Huggins has a wartime job—to cut and paste the ticker-tape cables and send them out as telegrams. On this fateful day the teletypewriter punches out, letter by agonising letter, 16 cables from the War Department—"enough to break the hearts of the entire town".

Next to Love was inspired by a real-life wartime incident. The Bedford Boys were a group of young men from a small town in Virginia who were all killed within the first few minutes of landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944. While Feldman didn't want to write about the incident itself, she says "for me, it was the kernel of what was going on in America during the war," and led her to think about the "total devastation" that would be wreaked on a small town by such a loss.

The novel follows three women—Babe, Millie and Grace, friends since childhood—who all see their beaus off to war. But only Babe's husband returns, traumatised, and her two friends are widowed. Feldman explores how Millie and Grace react, in very different ways, to the tragedy, drawing on women she had known as a child: "One canonised her husband and did not go out on a date for a long time." The other got on with her life: "She'd seen too many women who buried themselves with their dead husbands."

Next to Love spans the years 1941 to 1964, dipping into the women's lives in turn. "I had to cover a lot of territory if I wanted to look at the consequences of their widowhood and how they had dealt with it. I didn't want to just trudge through 20 years," Feldman says. It was a turbulent period in American history and Feldman's characters grapple with the profound changes in society—sexism, anti-semitism and the rise of the Civil Rights movement—as well as rebuilding their own lives.

Public events, personal lives

A "passionate interest" in the past (she has a BA and an MA in Modern History) led Feldman to write historical fiction. She favours working in the writers' room in New York City Public Library. The peace is good for the concentration she says, but it can "also be frightening when you're having a bad day, to see somebody typing away furiously while you're just sitting there, staring into space".

In her writing Feldman is particularly keen on exploring "the intersection of public events and personal lives". Her best-known novel is Scottsboro, which was based on a true story; the trial of nine black youths accused of rape by two white girls in Alabama in 1931. Her novel revived reader interest in a forgotten, though pivotal, part of American history—the case is credited with triggering the Civil Rights movement. In the UK it was well received and shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize (her compatriot Marilynne Robinson eventually won the prize for Home). "I think Americans don't like to look at this ugly incident in their past. A southerner once said to me: ‘It's true that it happened, but do we have to keep talking about it?'" Feldman's answer would be a resounding yes: "I think it's important to tell these stories again."

No real-life characters

Next to Love is the first of Feldman's historical novels not to have real-life characters at the centre of the story. Her 2003 novel, Lucy, told the story of Franklin Roosevelt's passion for Lucy Mercer—his wife Eleanor's social secretary. Feldman recalls starting to write that novel, "I had immersed myself so much in what he had said, his letters and such, that I had a lot of quotes floating around in my head. I wrote a sentence and then [thought]: ‘Wait, he never said that—you just put words in Franklin Roosevelt's mouth!' Then I stopped and thought: ‘If you can't do that, then you can't write this book'."

"So that's certainly a kind of fiction, to try and get into their psychologies, but on the other hand you are limited by what they really did. You can't change [their] character, you can only try to delve into it." Whereas in Next to Love "the characters evolved . . . Babe grew as I wrote, she just took over—and that is so much fun for a fiction writer."

 

Click here to read a conversation between Ellen Feldman and Emma Donoghue at Cheltenham Festival.

Next to Love is out now, published by Picador.

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