Ella Leffland’s Rumors of Peace, a 1979 novel reissued by Harper Perennial as A Rediscovered Classic, has been on my reading list for years. Not only did it get great reviews, it also was recommended by women in my family.
This bold, often comical, intense coming-of-age novel is not quite a classic, but it is a delight to read.
Set in California during World War II, Rumors of Peace begins as an American idyll. Suse, the narrator, the daughter of Danish immigrants, is a ten-year-old tomboy truant who loves twirling on the monkey bars and playing kickball. She gets bad grades in school, but other than that she has a happy life. Outsiders may think her hometown of Mendoza, California, is ugly, dominated as it is by a Shell Oil refinery, but she and her friends think it’s just fine. Although she is vaguely aware that her parents are distressed by the war in Europe, it doesn’t affect her until Pearl Harbor is bombed.
Suse loves to read fairy tales, and her description of family life has a fairy-tale atmosphere
On winter evenings, after slopping through my homework, I curled up with Andersen’s fairy tales. A fire crackled in the wood stove, and there came a pleasant muted din from the cellar, where Peter was relegated with his snare drum. Karla sat sketching at the dining-room table, and from the radio came the wise, confident voices of Information, Please, which my parents listened to over their evening coffee. When summer came, we moved onto the front porch in the evenings. The crickets chirped from the dry grass. My dad’s cigar glowed in the dark, an orange dot. From somewhere in the distance you could hear a game of kickball. The night was warm, the air thick with stars.
But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everything changes for Suse. She becomes obsessed with war and worries endlessly about her brother, Peter, a soldier whose letters are censored . Suddenly she hates the “Japs,” and thinks all of them should be interned or killed, though at the same time she feels guilty about the familiar Japanese florist who is forced to close his shop. And then when her Italian-American best friends have to move, she is even more confused. Eventually she realizes that her own Danish parents are more truly foreign than those Japanese and Italians whose families have been in California for two or three generations.
Adolescence also happens to Suse, with war always looming in the shadows. In junior high, she is put in the “dumbbell class,” because her grades are abysmal. Here she meets Peggy, the underachieving daughter of a cultured doctor and an architect. Suse is fascinated by Peggy’s older sister, Helen Maria, a brilliant classics student who commutes to Berkeley and speaks with a fake British accent at home because she wants to go to Oxford.
Nothing stays the same in adolescence. Suse is surprised when Peggy loses weight and begins to study so she can be promoted to the college prep track. Helen Maria approves of Peggy’s studying but gives up on her when it turns out Peggy’s goal is only to become popular. Isolated from Peggy, Suse, too, begins to want something different. She decides math will be her subject, and after she is tutored by a young genisu Suse gets an A and is promoted into college prep algebra.
Suse likes knowing what’s going on in class, but she finds the students duller than those in the dumbbell class. Conventionality is transparently shallow. She continues to hang out with a very bright, imaginative boy known in his younger years as “Dumb Donny.”
There was something prim about these College Prep types, too neat, too much like each other. In dumbbell class you had variety. You had bold, sleazy girls , with penciled eyebrows and greasy lipstick, and boys in pachuko haircuts and leather jackets, who slouched around narrow-eyed like Humphrey Bogart, and you had certain Okie kids who never got rid of their Okieness but still looked unwashed and farm-bred and talked in a gray-sounding drawl…
As the narrative progresses, Suse matures. She begins to see people as three-dimensional, with lives that don’t necesssarily connect with hers. She gets crushes on teachers and at 14 falls for Helen Maria’s ex-boyfriend, Egon, a German Jew who quits school to be a translator. Helen Maria, whose goal is to go to Oxford at the end of the war, invites Suse to visit her in Berkeley and continues to inspire Suse to read andgstudy. But it seems there will always be more devastation: the war is almost over when the U.S. drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is the kind of multilayered novel that generates an excellent book club discussion. I’m sure English teachers will enjoy it, too. Suse’s most difficult problem is to learn to enjoy peace without worrying about the shadow of the next war war.
A very smart, enjoyable book. I do recommend it.