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Finding Inspiration in Upheaval: April Smith on the McCarthy Era

Set in 1950, April Smith’s second historical novel Home Sweet Home follows a family from New York City to rural South Dakota, where they are caught up in the panic of McCarthyism, a smear campaign, a sensational trial, and, ultimately, murder. It’s is a thrilling mystery for fans of history, particularly those who are curious about this dramatic era in American history. In the piece below, Smith explores her own interest in McCarthyism and the impact that it had on countless lives. Read on to learn more about how it shaped her own childhood and influenced her writing of Home Sweet Home

The McCarthy era always seemed remote to me, something that happened in black and white during my parents’ time. I was five years old in 1954, when the networks began live coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, during which Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was brought before the Senate to defend his claim that the U.S. Army had been infiltrated by Communists. He came across as power-seeking bully. Six months after the hearings he was censured. Three years later he was dead of alcoholism. Compared to the high anxiety of nuclear-armed Communist Russia that dominated my childhood, the rantings of a sweaty guy on TV seemed innocuous.

Researching Home Sweet Home caused a seismic shift in my understanding of McCarthy and his legacy. He was good at what he did, which was to target our unconscious fears, give them a name (Communism), and create false authority around himself that promised to fight the enemy. As his ego inflated, so did his list of “Reds” and “spies,” until nobody in America was safe from suspicion, not just the famous Hollywood writers and directors who went to jail, but innocent citizens who became scapegoats of patriotic mass hysteria that swept their churches and schools. I’ve always been interested in the ripple effect of violence, and the firestorm of McCarthyism left uncounted victims wandering the ruins of their lives. By paying close attention to the story of one family, I hoped to dramatize something larger, which is the way in which affliction is passed from generation to generation, and how it is possible to heal.

— April Smith