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Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott

When All the World Was Young, by Barbara Holland

June 9, 2006


Children didn't have appointments. Nice women didn't have jobs. Black people kept to the back of the bus, especially in the south. Abortions were not legal and could only be gotten in secret. Such was the pre-1960's socially-conservative desert When All the World was Young.


Barbara Holland's amusing memoir takes it all on and more. Through her admittedly spotty memory she muses on the nature of things as seen by a young girl. She grew up under the cloud of World War II and Cold War in Washington, DC. Holland lays out her days in impeccable order as the awkward and bookish stepdaughter to a cold and demanding father.


Woman's role in society is something mysterious. If you weren't a mother, and consumed with the cleanliness of the home, then who were you? Her own mother is indifferent to housework, intensively creative, and fond of babies, but not adolescents. Her passel of aunts provides some diverse roll models. One, a former missionary worker, escaped invading imperialist Japanese troops by riding a donkey through China and India. Another aunt, a Washington hostess, is inclined to giving perfect parties. Yet another is shrewish and childless, bitter to the end.


Most interesting is her mother and the wartime job she takes. Holland's mother shines as a designer and builder of displays at a department store, but has to quit because of a new baby. It's unclear if the baby was conceived before or after her departure, but the job stands out as a beacon of independence. Later Holland experiences similar freedom in the form a regular paycheck by working at the same department store.


Because the book approaches woman's oppression through the eyes of a girl-child the stifling aura of male domination is an incomprehensible jumble of do's and don'ts. Don't sit in Father's chair. Don't make noise once Father gets home. Don't embarrass the man who is groping you by noticing. Best to simply forget that the whole incident happened.


Holland's perspective, as a woman who survived into her seventies, gives the book its amusing air and knowing humanity. When you get to see yourself at you mother's age things seem clearer than they did as a child. When All the World Was Young proves that youth is fun and fickle, and that growing up is both predictable and preferable.


Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 6/9/06.

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