An old family secret, a new novel from Elizabeth Gaffney

March 2, 2015

Brooklyn novelist Elizabeth Gaffney didn’t learn just how her great-grandmother had died until she "first heard the story of what people in my family jocularly call ‘the baking accident.’"

Family legend long had attributed her death to a heart attack. In fact, as Gaffney learned in her 30s, Bessie Powell Dunlop committed suicide by placing her head inside an unlit gas oven.

This discovery rattled Gaffney, who has struggled with depression as a teenager and an adult.

"I had never heard the story; I didn’t know the first thing about it," she said recently. "It would have been helpful to know as a young person."

The revelation, Gaffney added, "made me want to try to reconstruct the real gravity and genuine pain my great-grandmother went through to get to that point."

The result is Gaffney’s new novel, "When the World Was Young."

Although it is not literally the story of Bessie Dunlop, it is set in the post-war world she knew. It begins in Brooklyn in the jubilation of V-J Day, when Japan’s formal surrender ended WWII. The novel, concerning a 9-year-old girl whose mother dies suddenly, includes circumstances similar to Bessie’s, whom the author believes had been the lover of a man who had rented a room at the family home.

On V-J Day that man broke off the relationship and moved back to his hometown, prompting, Gaffney believes, the woman to end her life.

"Elizabeth has a deep, generational memory of life in New York City, Brooklyn in particular," Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell, who joined Gaffney to discuss the novel as part of his Writers at Work series, said. "Her work is distinguished by the care and attention she brings to New York’s past and her constant awareness of how that past affects the present.

"I like to think of her as a Midwestern writer who has been trapped in the East."

For more information about Gaffney and the backstory involving her great-grandmother’s suicide, go to




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