Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril

That last summer we spent in the big old house over the Ashokan Reservoir was when Judy wrote most of her novel. She was there, with our daughters, all summer long. She had invited some of her old friends to spend much of the summer with her — I believe Katherine MacLean was one of them but don’t remember who else — and Judy had easily volunteered them to help her keep an eye on the kids so Judy herself could work on her book. Then, on weekends when I was there, I took over for a lot of the (actually pretty easy) childcare. That was the way it was in the first part of the summer.

Then, as Judy was having difficulties with the book, she began taking a room at the foot of the hill as soon as I got there on a weekend to take over prime charge of our daughters and writing away over the Friday night and the Saturday night, until relieving me on Sunday. I had no objection to any of that. As her agent, I had got Judy a pretty good contract with Doubleday, then still an all-purpose publisher with a decent record of best-sellers. Her editor was Walter Bradbury, the managing editor of the line, a business contact who had become a friend, and Brad was good with reassuring and encouraging Judy as she needed it. All was well.

Well, almost all was well, though with the occasional cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. When finally Judy gave me the completed manuscript, Brad did that careful line-by-line reading and then conference with the writer that I have described elsewhere. I think that must have been a tough meeting, because Judy tried her best to keep her style intact. But they got through it all right, or almost. There was a problem. Judy used one word in a scene that Brad really hated. I think the word may have been “burbled,” as in, “‘that’s great,’ he burbled.”

Brad was an almost-always reasonable man, but on this question, I don’t really know why, he was almost as intractable as Judy was. When he came to me with the problem, since I was Judy’s agent, I could not believe the two of them were locking heads over something that trivial. So I made a rather sneaky and very, very bad suggestion. I said, “If I were you, I would give up on the argument, but then I would just make sure the word wasn’t in the final setting proofs. Then when the actual printed book was in her hands and she noticed the change, I would abase myself in apologies.”

This Brad actually did. He was too upright a man to be really sneaky, though, so he let Judy know. It wasn’t the end of the world, though it did lead to a lot of yelling. But we got past it.

In fact, for several years there, we got past just about everything. I was losing big chunks of money every month on the literary agency, but it hadn’t yet reached the catastrophe point, and I was enjoying the work. And Judy had her novel.

The title on the book was Shadow on the Hearth. It wasn’t exactly the kind of book people thought of when they said “science fiction,” though it was set in the (near) future. In it, Judy’s postulate was that nuclear war actually happened. New York City was atom-bombed, and Judy’s story was that of a family trapped there.

She did a good job of it, too. The reviews were mostly friendly, and very soon there was even talk about a movie. Not Hollywood millions, that is. The kind of movie they were talking about would be a made-for-TV job, but what was wrong with that? There would be a useful chunk of money, no matter what, and then if it actually did get made her audience would simply explode, no more tens of thousands, to suddenly tens of millions.

It all happened, too. The movie did get made, quite well. It was a success. It didn’t happen rapidly, because such things don’t. But it was a great success for Judy, and she blossomed.

To be continued.

Related posts:
Judith Merril, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9


  1. Robert Nowall says:

    “Shadow on the Hearth” was one of those books that, it seems, I heard a lot about, but never turned up a copy to read. I’ve spent a lot of my youth poking through used bookstores and turned up a lot, but not that particular title. It didn’t seem particularly rare or anything—it just never turned up.

    Somehow I still regret not finding it—the idea sounded interesting and appealing—though, these days, I’m probably not motivated enough to follow the link above and buy it. (Besides, I have the fixed idea that used copies of a book should be half the original cover price—comes from working in one of those used bookstores.)

  2. Greg says:

    So… Would the house have been on Ohayo mountain?