The time is the late fall of 1941. Artie Garber, who is 10 years old, lives in the small Illinois town of Birney with his parents and his 19-year-old brother, Roy, the football and basketball hero of the local high school. It's an idyllic existence, in a place "where life went on like it was supposed to, with people mostly behaving themselves, working and playing ball and listening to the radio after supper and going to church on Sundays, like God intended." Then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the peaceful little world suddenly changes.
Roy, an indifferent scholar at best, decides to volunteer at once for the Marines in order to escape the embarrassment of failing to graduate as scheduled. In his last weeks at home he falls in love with Shirley Colby, a beautiful and previously unattainable cheerleader, and she with him; when he comes home on leave after basic training their love affair becomes intensely physical, as a curious Artie discovers when he tracks them down at their favorite spooning spot. They become engaged, against the strenuous objections of Shirley's parents; Roy heads off for San Francisco and unknown points east with the admonition to his brother to "keep an eye on the future Mrs. Roy Garber for me."
Dan Wakefield takes his title from a song achingly familiar to anyone old enough to remember World War II: "Don't sit under the apple tree/ With anyone else but me,/ Till I come marching home." The novel, his fourth, is a nostalgic recreation of what life was like on the small-town home front for a 17-year-old girl who desperately misses her fiance'e and for the young boy whose "duty" it is to guard her for his brother. It is a recollection of a time when the strains and dislocations of war forced boys and girls to grow up much faster than they ought to. In other words, the territory will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has read "Summer of '42" or seen the movie adaptation of it; Wakefield is not exactly guilty of originality.
Still, "Under the Apple Tree" is an agreeable and occasionally moving book. Through the relentless, exhaustive accumulation of detail, Wakefield brings a young boy's wartime experiences to life: serving as "Assistant Junior Air Raid Spotter," collecting old pots and pans for scrap drives, running fanciful counterespionage operations, using an "official pair of Boy Scout semaphore flags, each one divided into a red and white triangle and sewn onto a stick, just like regulation Army or Navy or Marine semaphore flags." There are some nice, true-to-life set pieces: boys arguing heatedly over the relative merits of their fathers' military competence; families learning to live with the realities of rationing; youth's battle to "stay pure" against the temptations of "self-abuse."
Though the novel is unflaggingly nostalgic, to his credit Wakefield declines to sentimentalize either the war or the home front. He recalls the "slacking" that took place as the war entered its third and fourth years and Americans found it increasingly difficult to maintain the vigilance and sacrifice that the national effort demanded. Though Roy serves heroically in the South Pacific, there is nothing heroic about the ultimate resolution of his wartime experience; that resolution is, in fact, the most unexpectedly moving part of the novel. War is exhausting and debilitating for all; as the conflict draws to a close, Artie has grown up enough to understand that it is time to move on:
"In the secret, most selfish part of his mind, Artie was glad the A-Bomb had ended the War because he was sick and tired of it. He knew he'd 'remember Pearl Harbor' the rest of his life, but it seemed now part of his childhood, along with the patriotic songs and the drives for Bonds and scrap, the rationing stamps and Gold Stars hung in the windows of homes where boys would not return. All that seemed like a dream already, and Artie was ready for the real things of life, like high school and girls."
As that paragraph suggests, the chief weakness of "Under the Apple Tree" is its uncertain narrative tone. At times Wakefield writes in the clumsy language and syntax of a pre-adolescent boy; at others, in the more distant and mature voice of the omniscient author. It's a problem that almost always vexes the novelist who chooses to write about a child but declines to let the child tell the story, and Wakefield fails to resolve it. On balance, though, "Under the Apple Tree" is a pleasant little book that is appealingly earnest and direct--good reading for the hot weather ahead