Thomas Mallon has written that he prefers his books to cover geography and time periods that he has not personally experienced, to move beyond the bounds of his own personal experience. Thus, Dewey Defeats Truman, the title lifted from the Chicago Tribune s famous headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” is not a memoir or personal reminiscence or exploration of personal trauma of the sort immensely popular in the world of publishing these days. This leisurely historical novel, however, is essentially an ethnography of a particular time and particular place: Owosso, Michigan, in the summer of 1948. World War II has been over for three years. The country has rushed to return to a peacetime normality. Wounds both physical and mental, losses both physical and psychological, and economies ravaged or inflated by the war are being healed. There is a presidential race going on in the country. In no place, perhaps, is the confidence in Thomas Dewey’s upcoming victory as high as in Owosso, Michigan, Dewey’s birthplace and the home of his mother—and that of several very dark and mostly hidden secrets. As the summer wears on and the campaign touches ever more directly, if inconsequentially, on this small town of sixteen thousand people and a dozen or so of its residents, the secret crimes, losses, and passions are revealed, resolved, and in some cases reburied—literally. This novel, then, is what the old- fashioned novel often is, a detailed miniature, a portrait of a community distinguished only by an accident of history and highlighted here in the ordinary behaviors of a number of characters and types: the ambitious young politician; the college woman writing her novel while working in a book store; the grieving mother of a young man killed in the war; an aging widower who, as a kind of conscience of the community, must hide a terrible secret of his own; a town booster; a local labor organizer and one of only two Truman supporters (apparently) in the whole community; a high school senior who is a “go-getter” always hustling a buck; and the community boosters desirous of making the most of their moment of fame when their hometown boy will, without a doubt, take his place in the White House. It does not revisit a scene of Mallon’s personal agony, a miserable childhood, a failed marriage, or a coming-of-age experience in, say, a summer camp or on a college campus.
The virtue of this novel is that—using the device of the election of 1948 in which an authentic underdog defeated the man everyone thought would win—it creates a strongly detailed evocation of American life, building it up as a sculptor might by applying the clay piece by piece, creating form and texture, shape and meaning, teaching even those old enough to remember the election, however vaguely, much more than they ever knew about the springs and devices of small-town political life in the upper Midwest before television was a force, when President Harry Truman campaigned from the back of a railroad train, and when Labor, especially the United Auto Workers, was flexing its muscles. A novel not of plot (it has three or four plots that intertwine but do not drive the major device of the novel) but of character, it creates its themes out of the motifs, secrets, meanings, and icons of fifty years ago. In our past we live our future and sometimes see our present—and keep secrets.
Horace Sinclair, veteran of the Spanish-American War, sardonic observer and opponent of change, is a retired accountant who lives in the past more happily than in the present, comforted by his memories of his wife, with whom he had lived for fifty years, and by the works of Sir Walter Scott. That he had also participated in burying (literally), with the help of four friends, another friend who committed suicide fifty years earlier now weighs heavily on him, as “boosterism”—in the form of Al Jackson’s project to create a “Dewey Walk” over a few backyards along the river—will undoubtedly discover the grave, Horace’s secret of all these years, and destroy the equanimity (to say the least) of everyone connected. How he manages to avert this disaster (enlisting an unlikely assistant and helping, in the same event, to solve another “mystery” disappearance from the town’s teenage population) is one of the plot strands of the novel.
Among the political themes are those highlighted by Truman in his famous whistlestop campaign—the “do nothing” Congress, the plight of Labor, the social and economic needs of “the people.” There is nothing new here, but Mallon is able to do what every good writer must do—embody his themes in characters about whom readers care, who live and breathe in credible ways. Jane Herrick obsessively traces the movements of her late son’s army unit, tracking its progress through the war so that she observes the anniversary of every moment of its campaign life. With an unwavering focus, she also tracks the coffins still returning with the war dead for reburial in the United States. Jane shores up these fragments against her ruin, a desolation over Arnold’s death so total that even the presence of her younger son cannot relieve it. Carol Fuller is concerned because Truman has...
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