Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The teenaged Tillie Hunsdorfer describes her fascination with the wonder of the atom. Her mother, Beatrice, is in their cluttered home, speaking on the phone with Mr. Goodman, one of Tillie’s teachers. Mr. Goodman is concerned about Tillie’s withdrawn nature and her repeated absences. It soon becomes apparent that Beatrice is responsible for Tilllie’s absences from school, claiming that she needs her to take care of errands around the house. In reality, Tillie finds solace in her science class, and school is an escape from her dismal domestic life.
Beatrice threatens to chloroform the rabbit that Mr. Goodman gave to Tillie unless Tillie takes care of the rabbit droppings immediately. Tillie’s older sister Ruth appears, looking for lipstick and referring to it as “Devil’s Kiss.” She announces that Tillie’s appearance at the science assembly was the cause of much laughter in the auditorium. Beatrice offers Ruth a cigarette in exchange for a back-scratch. During this exchange, it is revealed that Ruth spent time in a sanitarium after her father died and is troubled by nightmares.
Tillie’s interest in science increases as her teacher gives her some marigold seeds that have been exposed to varying degrees of radiation. While Tillie is tending to her experiment, Beatrice reads the newspaper and speculates wildly about business prospects. The family’s elderly boarder, Nanny, appears, supported by her walker. She neither speaks nor...
(The entire section is 1027 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971, was inspired by Zindel’s memories of his mother’s “charmingly frantic” get-rich-quick schemes. In its focus on the crazy world of a severely troubled woman, and in its resolution in one of the characters’ discovery of self-importance through science, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds anticipates both the plays and young-adult novels that Zindel would later write.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, like most of Zindel’s plays, intensifies the themes and characters that appear in his young-adult novels. Two teenagers, Ruth and Tillie, live in a world dominated by a single parent whose life has been a tragic disappointment. Like Zindel’s mother, Beatrice, Betty Frank has been left with two children to support. She does this by providing nursing care in her home for elderly clients such as the ancient “Nanny,” who is a resident at the time the play takes place.
Betty Frank, who was known as “Betty the Loon” during her high school career, is an unsympathetic exaggeration of some of the parents in Zindel’s novels. Selfishly preoccupied, slightly alcoholic, and frequently lost in a dream world of preposterous schemes to make money and fantasies about what she might have been if she had not made the mistake of marrying and getting saddled with two kids, Betty Frank is...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opens with a voice-over of Tillie talking about how the same atoms now in her hand were once contained in different parts of the Earth throughout history. The scene then shifts to Beatrice Hunsdorfer talking on the phone with Tillie's science teacher, Mr. Goodman, explaining why Tillie is absent from school so often. Beatrice doesn't tell him that it is because she often keeps Tillie at home to do household tasks. She is very complimentary to Mr. Goodman, and thanks him for the pet rabbit he has allowed Tillie to bring home. Once Beatrice hangs up the phone, however, her kind demeanor changes, and she angrily berates Tillie for putting her in the position of having to call the school. Tillie's sister Ruth enters, ready for school. She tells Beatrice how Tillie became the laughingstock of the entire school during an assembly when she was up on stage cranking a model of an atom. Ruth then tells Beatrice that there is a file of the family's history kept in the school office. Beatrice voices her concern about this file. The stage goes dark, and Tillie's voice is heard describing a science experiment in which a small piece of metal placed in a cloud chamber started to smoke. Tillie is enthralled when Mr. Goodman tells her this fountain of atoms could go on for eternity. The lights then come up on the stage. Tillie is preparing boxes of dirt in which to plant marigolds for a science...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)