Then We’ll Set It Right by Robert Gorham Davis, 1943
The magic trick:
Demonstrating the rude awakening for American society that World War II was through a story about smug parenting and shocking child’s play
Phenomenal story, this.
The kids playing childish war games outside take things too far to a tragic end. But it’s the adults who really meet with Davis’s scorn in the story.
The scenes inside the Purvis house with Lawrence and his parents are just so exceptionally amazingly outstandingly good. They are saccharine sweet with Mr. Purvis oozing parental smugness with his every word. He is just so proud of the way their little (pre-)nuclear family is able to solve every little domestic crisis with integrity and respect.
Which of course creates a massive problem in the end when Lawrence returns home sobbing. We leave the story with the father still wrapped in the reassurance that his tried-and-true method can fix anything. But this little episode – and World War II as a whole, the story seems to suggest – is not going to be brushed away with the same kind of solutions the old guard on which the old guard has come to rely. And that’s quite a trick on Davis’s part.
“The dishes,” Lawrence said grudgingly and came slowly back to the table. “But just this once, it’s our big day.”
“You think your mother should do them then?”
“And the garden this morning, how much time did you put in?”
“But…” Lawrence’s voice trailed off and he sat down in his chair, sprawling defiantly, watching every bite his parents took.
“Come, boy,” said Mr. Purvis in his deep, rich voice, “is this the way your troops obey orders?”
“No, sir,” Lawrence answered, sitting up straight now.
“I wonder what sort of soldier you are.” Mr. Purvis paused, looking thoughtfully at Lawrence.
Lawrence returned the gaze, not letting himself hope, moving a finger up and down one seem of his pants.
“Because I’m more interested in the spirit in which its done than in the work itself, I’m going to make a counter-proposal. I can take over your dish-washing this once,” he held up his hand as Lawrence moved eagerly. “This is going to be equally hard. You don’t want to just get out of something, do you?”
“If things are too easy, you don’t feel good about them, do you? Well, you may go now if you return promptly at 4:30 and work for one full hour and a half in the garden.”
Lawrence blinked and looked uneasily up at the clock. It was twenty-five minutes past two.
“Without any reminding. You’re on your honor now. Remember.”
“All right, Dad.”
With a little sigh Lawrence grabbed a belt and a cap pistol from the table and rushed out the door.
Mr. Purvis smiled and turned to his wife. “He’s okay,” he said, cheerfully. “We just have to deal with things as they come up, get them out into the open. Not let them build up inside.”
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