Shadow On The Heath by Judith Merril (book review).

May 1, 2022 | By | Reply More

Locating Judith Merril’s ‘Shadow On The Heath’ by Judith Merril took a little longer and pre-dates her two novels with C.M. Kornbluth. I tend to be wary of reading successive books by the same author but each book has been different from each other not to have any stuck patterns.

For this book, we follow the life of suburb housewife Gladys Mitchell until the middle of the first chapter when New York is hit by tactical nukes. They obviously aren’t called tactical nukes because the term didn’t exist back in 1953 but Merril does point out that they are not as powerful as the one that destroyed Nagasaki. Gladys life is turned upside down, caring for her two children and whether her husband working in New York has survived. The focus is less on the causes but more on survival at a domestic level. Moreso when there is a fear of water contamination and people being checked with Geiger counters and a level of paranoia about infiltrators setting up homing devices.

What is impressive about this story is Merril’s command of dialogue, more apparent when she contrasts between Gladys and her maid, Veda, who has a stronger accent. The local ‘police’ are concerned about Veda’s whereabouts at the time of the bombing as they think homing devices were set up and she seemed to avoided the fallout at her building. Her story matches Gladys in that she had been ill for three days and hadn’t gone out and got contaminated but there is a lot of stress in the situation.

Of course, there is growing radiation poisoning , especially amongst Gladys’ children but that is going spoiler. Although I haven’t read any other books from the 1950s time period on this subject, I do suspect this was one of few on the subject realistically with developing radiation poisoning, here called ‘radioactive disease’. What we take for granted now like white blood cell count, hair falling out and vomiting must have felt pretty new at the time. Merril did have some restraint on it happening but that might be for the time period and, although not quite a happy ending, enough of one to probably appease the American audience.

The fact that the story still works today is because, regardless of our technological advances which would go after a nuclear strike, similar problems are bound to happen today. After reading the first 100 pages in bed and coming downstairs to the quiet of lockdown, there was a serious thought of would this be how it would feel in a similar situation.

I’m not saying this book is easy to get hold of and hardly cheerful with what is going on in the world today but Merril was certainly prophetic on suburban issues then and now. We might do a few more things now, like filling your bath with water in case of breakdowns, but much of it will make you think.

GF Willmetts

April 2022

(pub: Sidgwick And Jackson, 1953. 287 page small hardback. Price: It varies.)

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Category: Books, Scifi


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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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