“Apes and Angels” is about the people in the town of Kenton, Ind., “before television, before jet planes or astronauts, before civil rights, transistors, Xerox, AIDS, the Pill, or the Bomb. . . .”
A great many older people now living in New York or Los Angeles, Chicago or St. Louis, grew up in villages like Kenton, and many of us look back to such communities, not just with simple nostalgia but also with an intense yearning for those old days when life was simpler and, perhaps most important of all, when we were younger, much younger. We look back to what we regard as a kind of innocence . . . but it is we who were innocent, not the times.
This is what Philip Appleman evokes for us--the artifacts and attitudes of an era. Dr. Roberts realizes he is running late: “Lowell Thomas was saying '. . . and so long until tomorrow.’ He was even later than he thought; ‘Amos and Andy’ were coming on.” One character notes the prices of William L. Shirer’s “Berlin Diary”: $3.
Children aspire to “the Jack Armstrong ring, the Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man badge, the shelf of Big Little Books. . . .” People listen to the “Hut Sut Song.”
In Shakespearean style, there are two overlapping plots. One is the romance of the unhappily married Dr. Roberts with biology teacher Elaine Edelman, who insists on teaching evolution to high school students and whose father, under the pseudonym of “The Minotaur,” writes a mildly leftist column for the paper, the Hoosier Rationalist; the other is the teen-age romance of Paul Butler with Ruthie Peters, his big brother Jim’s girlfriend.
The doctor’s romance is much more than that: It is an examination of small-town narrowness, of the unwillingness of people to accept anything new and their willingness to believe the worst. The meeting of the Thursday Quilting Club that decided there is witchcraft at work is a study in people’s intellectual frailty.
All this is only a few months before Pearl Harbor, and it is remarkable how many of Kenton’s thoughtful people suspected that the United States was certain to get into the war, one way or another. What we have here is a wedding of the village and the world, and perhaps this is important. Never again would people in villages feel removed from the great outside.
President Roosevelt’s speeches strike home in Kenton, though their concerns seem far away. Says one resident: ". . . You got to admit we can’t sit still forever, just taking it and not dishing it out.”
A second responds: “What do you mean, take it, dish it out--this isn’t a kids’ fistfight, he wants a war.”
Appleman adds perspective to this picture by adopting the John Dos Passos technique of inserting excerpts from news stories and speeches between the chapters: Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, Paul V. McNutt (remember him?), Lindbergh’s isolationist speeches. An American Legion leader is quoted: “The time for freedom of speech is past.”
The teen-age romance is more painful, more real, more touching. How different young people’s moral confusions were! Paul is hoping that “lust in the heart wasn’t a sin after all.” At another point he “realized: yes, of course, he himself was the enemy.” He reflects that everything that really matters . . . is a mystery: beyond me.”
How well Appleman recalls and evokes those days, all the little things that danced attendance upon history! Only two out-of-time things struck me. Would even a doctor, in 1941, have told a young woman that his “sperm count was low”? And were people, in 1941, using the encouraging cry of “Way to go”? Somehow I doubt it, having heard it myself for the first time in the last 15 years.
“Apes and Angels” is well written. It touches the heart unerringly and it captures, not just the historical moods of an Indiana village on the eve of Pearl Harbor but also the emotional moods of people fumbling for love:
“And so in the dim moonlight there was a first kiss: tentative, chaste, virginal; a second one passionate; a third one consumed with guilt; a fourth one casting off caution; a fifth . . .”
Appleman presents us with the good bad old days and the bad good old days and reminds us that they were the same.