Friday, September 30, 2011


The Road Through The Wall, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1948, 192 pp

As far as I can tell, this was Shirley Jackson's first novel. It has a few flaws but you can recognize her. She already had her fingers on the pulse of the dark underside in American suburban life. "The Lottery," the short story which made her career, was published in The New Yorker in the same year as this novel.

Over a period of one summer, a group of families, all of which live on the same block, interact in the way of small neighborhoods. Each family is introduced with a bit about their backgrounds, their children if they have any, and a description of their house. (This part was hard to keep straight; I ended up making a map of the block with the names of the characters next to the houses.)

It becomes clear that most of these families are in flux. Each one is either on the way up or down; in the case of a couple elderly women living alone, on the way out.

The children drive the events but with much interference from their hovering parents. For a reader like myself, who grew up in just such a neighborhood during the mid 1950s, reading this short novel was excruciating and eye-opening. We might as well have had these very same families on our block.

Jackson's trademark sense of foreboding is apparent from the first page of the Prologue and continues through to the tragic conclusion. Pepper Street in 1936 in a small California town is home to Harriet Merriam, young teen, overweight, aspiring writer. Her overbearing, Puritanical mother interferes at every opportunity but especially when Harriet befriends the lone Jewish girl on the block. Anyone could say that the parents in the neighborhood mean well, but all of them are caught up in attitudes and outside forces beyond their awareness.

By the end of the summer, the wall that surrounds the highly affluent section which abuts Pepper Street is being broken through to allow for a new street into the area, giving access to a coming subdivision. The wall is symbolic of the barriers which keep certain classes of people out (or in, depending on the point of view.) Most families on Pepper Street aspire to live inside that wall, never acknowledging the walls that already surround them.

The kids only know that something has become unsettled and for the reader they are the barometer of change. It will be another decade or so, but these are the neighborhoods from which my generation boiled out in rebellion, in destruction, in the restructuring of American life known as The Sixites.

Today many baby boomers look back with nostalgia on those years when we knew all our neighbors and could run free all day. They should read The Road Through The Wall.

(The Road Through The Wall
is out of print but can be ordered from used book sellers.)


  1. It sounds beautiful in a sort of almost melancholy way. It will be added to my TBR :-)

  2. Thanks Willa. I hope you can find a copy. Do you ever order books from used booksellers in the US?