Review of “Tender Victory" by Patricia Nolan Stein
Taylor Caldwell publication, McGraw Hill 1957
Patricia Nolan Stein
People who have read Taylor Caldwell’s numerous novels know she was never a “feel good” type of writer. She blatantly hated liberals and Democrats. She was antagonistic towards women who had careers and interests outside “the home." She blamed injustice and racism on “evil liberals” who used income tax to fund social programs, welfare programs, Medicare and Social Security.
Caldwell also hated children…..a theme which has occurred in many of her novels.
Realizing this, you might be surprised when you read “Tender Victory” for the first time. First published in 1957, this is – in my opinion – the ONLY Caldwell novel to emphasize a kind and gentle Democratic point of view.
No, it’s definitely not liberal propaganda! In “Tender Victory," Caldwell is still vehemently anti-Communist, finding them everywhere, especially among labor unions.
Yet this novel IS different. It extends kindness and compassion to orphaned children, coal miners, people of various religions and even to an emotionally tormented female journalist. Caldwell also shows sympathy to a “juvenile delinquent” who commits a violent crime but later expresses remorse.
The story focuses on a young veteran named Johnny Fletcher who arrives in Barryfield, Pennsylvania to start his new job as a Protestant minister. World War 2 has just ended.
But he’s not alone. He brings with him five refugee children he adopted while serving in the Army in Europe. The children are of Italian, French, German, Austrian, and Swiss descent. Each lost their family during the ravages of war; all suffered in concentration camps.
[Editorial Note: This IS an historical fact. After World War 2 ended, thousands of homeless children roamed throughout Europe after their families were killed. The luckier children ended up in orphanages. Herman Wouk also wrote about these displaced children in his novel, “War & Remembrance.”]
Johnny’s adopted children are between the ages of 5 and 13. His congregation rebels against the orphaned refugees. They resent the intrusion of these “foreigners" into their peaceful all-American community.
Fortunately, the minister finds friendship and moral support from five very different people: a Catholic priest; a Jewish Rabbi; a wealthy physician and philanthropist named Dr. McManus; a newspaper reporter named Lorry Summerfield and a motherly housekeeper named Mrs. Burnsdale.
Initially, the “Christian” residents of Barryfield express fury over the arrival of the children. They spew ugly threats. An angry mob surrounds the minister's house committing violence. They terrify the psychologically scarred and emotionally fragile children. Not unexpected for Taylor Caldwell, she here sets up a battle between the good and evil proclivities of Barryfield.
Many regard it as even more heinous when Rev. Johnny Fletcher decides to raise the children in their individual religions. Max, the Germany orphan, is Jewish. Pietro is from Italy and Jean is from France; both boys are Catholic. The girls, Kathy and Emilie, are from Switzerland and Austria; they are Protestants.
Johnny finds simpatico characters in the town’s Rabbi and Catholic priest. The three of them, as clergymen, form a spiritual alliance of sorts, protecting each other against ongoing hostility.
Eventually the bigotry of Barryfield's residents subsides. The town people realize the children are staying, whether they like it or not.
Johnny also becomes friends with Dr. McManus. Here is a strong-willed character, opinionated, sarcastic and bombastic, who is nevertheless, a decent man at heart. He likes Johnny and helps to support his adopted children, both financially and emotionally.
Mrs. Burnsdale is the widowed housekeeper who acts as a surrogate “grandmother” to the children and helps with their daily needs.
Lorry Summerfield is the daughter of the town’s newspaper publisher. She works as a reporter at the paper. She is lonely and beautiful, at odds with her parents, has a severe alcohol problem and desperately wants to stop the air pollution caused by the town’s factories.
Yet, doing that would mean going against her father’s editorial policy: never criticize the evil factory owners and politicians, who exploit coal miners and don’t care that the environment is being destroyed. Meanwhile, the town (especially children and babies) is beset by deathly illness from the heavily polluted air.
[Editorial Note: Legacy industrialists were often up in arms over the realization that citizens wanted to live well in America. An example was the legacy bituminous (soft; carcinogen filled) coal mines that suddenly had to compete with anthracite (hard; residue less toxic) coal. Images from old Civics books tell quite a story, a story whose like appears in history books today in some states, but not in others.] Caldwell's early novels often feature characters in historical settings, though mainly aimed to influence America's developing persona following World War 2. Looking back at the '50s is complicated by the McCarthy era, the modernist advertising, and the cute teeny-bopper images used in nostalgia commercials. This novel, though – replete with TC's affinity for religious leaders – focuses on issues relevant today.
War, death and destruction….young refugees who escaped death in their war-torn countries but encounter hatred and prejudice in America…. environmental catastrophes…..a journalist who wants to make a difference by fighting the “establishment” and exposing the enemy.
There’s beauty and humanity in this novel even if it does include stereotypical characters and it ends in a predictable fashion. (The good guys – Rev. Johnny Fletcher is, at times, almost too good to be true, despite TC giving him human faults and frailties – bravely overcome obstacles as the bad guys experience remorse and shame. Lessons are learned and love prevails with a sentimental conclusion.)
An unexpected “twist” to the plot involves Lorry’s brother Barry, also a war veteran. Their father, the newspaper publisher, is embroiled in a strange melodramatic conflict, for whose conception the like of which Taylor Caldwell has often received praise!
Regardless, people who read this novel might acquire new historical insights regarding World War 2, and a sense of what it meant to Caldwell readers in the middle 1950s.
“Tender Victory” is an enriching postcard in time. It brings us into the world of forgotten children who suffered during World War 2.
We experience their pain and fear, and also their second chance at life as refugees in America.
Read this novel…..you’ll learn a valuable lesson about human nature while being entertained at the same time.
It’s also interesting to compare America then and now. Battles and conflicts fought then still resonate – despite the sometimes obscuring differences – today.