The focus of Paula Phelan’s story, 1939 - Into the Dark, published by ZAP Media New York, takes place over a twelve month period with her characters interacting with famous names of the day in both New York Society's arts and entertainment world.
Set during the months before the declaration of war in Europe, Jason Rothman, is writing a play starring Carole Lombard which promises to be a huge success, but he is distracted by the events in Europe.
Having no knowledge of how the US greeted the news and events of the opening months of the war, being weaned on The Blitz, rationing and telegrams received by my family from the War Office, this perspective was what attracted me about this novel.
Consumed with their own problems after the great depression and the threats to playwrights and actors, although most of the characters seem aware of the gathering storm, they are reluctant to do more than discuss its implications dispassionately. Some are even glad to have escaped it, but no one wants to do anything positive.
Miriam, Jason’s wife, is an aspiring poet whose parents are trapped in Germany. The letters they send to Jason and Miriam are distressing, and Jason cannot understand why New York is so ambivalent about what is happening in Europe. Faced with success after many years of hard work, Jason is torn between a desire to do something to help the Jews, and concentrating on his career.
The novel takes the form of short, cameo scenes, each starring a different set of characters; a playwright, an artist, a musician, an architect, an activist and a gangster, the events of their lives, interspersed with press reports of dire warnings about the coming war, mixed in with film reviews. This unusual, fast-paced format was somewhat confusing at first, and I couldn’t get a handle on who the main characters of the book actually were. I also found myself waiting for the rest of the cast to fall in line with the premise that something had to be done about the war in Europe and the atrocities being perpetrated on the Jewish community.
This novel isn’t as simple at that, however and the realisation of how world changing this war would be takes longer to dawn on those watching it from afar, as well as others who turn off the radio due to the burgeoning difficulties of their own lives.
My initial impatience with their lethargy is soon dispelled as Ms Phelan shows me that perhaps they can be excused for their self absorption. Her characters all have intense, interesting lives, and their denial becomes understandable when their own conflicts are taken into account. No one has a free ride in this book, and in their place, I wondered if I would have instantly clamoured to be involved in a conflict everyone hopes will burn out before it becomes too serious.
With the WPA Federal Theatre Project, the Un-American Activities Committee, the Spanish Civil War, and demonstrations by communist unions thrown into the mix, this goes some way to exonerate those who resist involving themselves in a foreign war. Ms Phelan manages to weave them all together in the later stages, where she also makes a comment on the film Wuthering Heights which made me smile.
The characters who stood out for me, apart from Jason and Miriam and their prickly marriage, was Sarah the harpist whose independence and compassion brings some emotion to the series of loosely connected events. Ms Phelan’s meticulous research adds depth and colour to her story, as well as references to Mayor La Guardia, the hedonistic Gables, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn and many others.
1939-Into The Dark is the second of a trilogy, which deals with iconic events in American history in an unusual way. The first novel is 1919 Misfortune’s End, and the next book to be released is 1969 The Dream of Aquarius.