Reflecting on America in the 1950s and early ’60s usually evokes warm and fuzzy memories: leaving our houses unlocked, kids playing in the street and parks after dark, catching fireflies in a jar, hopscotch on the sidewalks. Gas was 25 cents, movies were a dime. We could walk home alone at night from a friend’s house without fear. But most of us lived in a traditional family --- a mom and a dad, brothers and sisters, and relatives who lived near enough that we often had Sunday dinner together. The people in our neighborhoods and schoolrooms all looked and talked like us. If we didn’t experience it ourselves, we’ve heard about it from our parents and grandparents. These were the good old days.
The darker truths that lay below the surface tend to fade with time. If there were those rare people in our midst who didn’t look and talk like us, they were eyed with suspicion, ignored, or even avoided. Schools, clubs, public bathrooms, transportation and whole neighborhoods were openly segregated. It was a social structure that was taken for granted --- even by those who were being segregated.
Sputnik was more than an iconic symbol of the beginning of the Space Age; it marked the beginning of a new fear from foreign shores. The term “nuclear families” would describe our cohesive family units in the future, but in 1958 our understanding of “nuclear” was sinister and associated with the Russians. “Duck and cover” drills at schools or reading about bomb shelters became a part of our lives.
"IS THIS TOMORROW is a tender, deeply moving story of a mother’s love and her struggle to make a normal life for her troubled son. Caroline Leavitt creates living, breathing characters on the printed page."
IS THIS TOMORROW has little to do directly with the Space Age, or even concerns about the Russians or racial discrimination. Yet the subtle shifts begin to foreshadow a slowly growing change on the face of American life. In 1956, that shadow hovers over the small community of Waltham, Massachusetts, where Ava Lark and her 15-year-old son, Lewis, live.
Ava and Lewis do not fall into the “people like us” category. Ava is divorced, Jewish, and holds a part-time job to support herself and her son after her husband leaves. Lewis is a brainy kid who loves science and has a tendency to ask searching questions in class, which creates a wedge between him and his teachers and peers. The kids are there to listen and learn, while the teachers do the talking. Lewis is too frequently called to the principal’s office, and Ava is summoned. When she defends him assertively, it is both heartening and humiliating to Lewis, who slowly begins to withdraw.
In a universe where wives stayed home while the husband went off to work, where children didn’t have their own key and came home to an empty house, Ava and Lewis were looked upon as outsiders, the “other.” Lewis’s only friends --- Jimmie and his older sister, Rose --- lived down the street with their widowed mother, Dot. Ava and Dot are both single mothers and share that one slim bond, but little else. Being a widow is more respectable than being a divorcée, which is made clear to Ava --- especially since she sometimes entertained male callers or dressed up and went out to a bar if Lewis was staying at Jimmie’s house. Ava and Jimmie are settled in their own niche; they’re not happy, but they’re getting by.
Then one warm spring evening, Jimmie suddenly goes missing. He had been attending a town event with Lewis and Rose but got separated from them. In that one night, his disappearance changes everything. An entire town is altered as the search for Jimmie draws strangers together and tears lovers apart.
IS THIS TOMORROW is a tender, deeply moving story of a mother’s love and her struggle to make a normal life for her troubled son. Caroline Leavitt creates living, breathing characters on the printed page. Their lives are forever changed, and when many years later a startling revelation is brought to light, they discover how fear has poisoned their world. Secrets kept do not always protect the guilty or the innocent.
The almost prophetic title of the book resonates today as society seems once again to look with suspicion at others who are “not like us.”
Reviewed by Roz Shea on May 16, 2013