I keep finding more stories by obscure and forgotten women authors of the golden age, so enjoy this review of “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, a science fiction short story by Frances M. Deegan, that was published in the October 1944 issue of Fantastic Adventures and would have been eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.
“The Martian and the Milkmaid” opens with the narrator in his car, complaining about the state of the roads in North Dakota in 1944. We learn that his name is Howard Clement and that he is a geologist chasing meteorites, looking for deposits of diatomaceous earth. Too bad that that meteorites have the diabolical tendency to select the most inaccessible places to land.
Howard’s destination is the rundown farm of Bill and Margie Henshaw, where a meteorite came down in 1901. The Henshaws are friendly enough and welcome Howard with breakfast and freshly brewed coffee. Though Bill warns Howard that his scientific equipment will draw the attention of the Gook, a mentally disabled man who lives on the farm and likes tinkering with things. Sometimes, he’s remarkably successful – for example, he built an incubator for the Henshaws, allowing them to raise and sell chickens. Oh yes, and the Gook just showed up on the farm at the same time the meteorite came down. Bill Henshaw found him wandering alone in the storm, naked and full of bruises.
As is the habit with friendly midwestern farmers who come across aliens and meteorites in their fields (just remember the origin of Superman), the Henshaws took the Gook in and nursed him back to health. From the bruises on his body, the Henshaws assumed that the Gook had been held captive and escaped. Since the Gook couldn’t speak in any language the Henshaws could understand, they also assumed he was mentally disabled, though the story uses far less polite terms. “Gook” was about the only word the stranger could utter, so that became his name.
Howard finally meets the Gook, when he comes into the kitchen and sits down at the table. We learn that the Gook is tall, slender and dark-skinned, that he has pointed ears, wears black glasses, that his dark hair has a purple tint and that his skin has an olive green tinge. When the Gook finally takes his black glasses off, his eyes are yellow. He also takes his coffee with Margie Henshaw’s homemade chili sauce.
The Henshaws asks Howard about his mission, so Howard gets to infodump about the benefits and applications of diatomaceous earth. There’s even a helpful footnote with further explanations. The science is correct, too – which is more than you can say for some of the stories in Astounding – with two exceptions. Diatomaceous earth is not linked to meteorites and there never was a deposit in North Dakota. Instead, the world’s biggest deposits were in the Lüneburg Heath some 130 kilometres from where I live. This also explains why the US would be so eager to located alternative deposits of diatomaceous earth, since the ones in the Lüneburg Heath were inaccessible to them due to World War II.
Later that evening, when Howard is checking his equipment, the Gook comes to his room, watches him and finally asks Howard if he is intelligent. Outraged, Howard replies that he is of course intelligent, but the Gook is not convinced. After all, he muses, nothing is less certain on this haphazard planet than intelligence.
The Gook now tells Howard that he comes from Mars and is more than four hundred years old. He also tells Howard that he will find no fallen meteorite on the farm, because the meteorite was the Gook’s ship. As for all the other meteorites Howard was investigating, well, they were Martian spaceships as well. For Mars is dying and the Martian people are nearly sterile. However, Earth is green and abundant and humans have no problems reproducing. The Martians want to find out why and maybe import some earthly germs and seeds to make Mars green again. However, the Gook finds Earth incredibly primitive and backwards, even though he learned English from some old schoolbooks, mail order catalogues and a dictionary the Henshaws had in their house. And since the Gook is extremely long-lived, he’s biding his time and waiting for technology to become advanced enough to establish communications with Mars. Oh yes, and his name really is Gook.
Howard tells Gook that it’s no surprise that he finds rural North Dakota backwards, but New York City is a completely different matter. Gook decides to take this as an invitation and travels back to New York City with Howard. The Henshaws aren’t even sad to see him go; they believe it will do Gook a lot of good to see more of the world than just the farm.
In Chicago, while waiting for the flight back to New York City, Howard gets some suits for Gook, because his farmer’s garb won’t fly in the big city. He also introduces Gook to whisky, which Gook likes, and tells him that putting ketchup and chili sauce on everything is absolutely not acceptable in polite society. And since Howard can hardly introduce Gook as a stray Martian who followed him home, they instead hash out a convincing backstory for Gook.
There is only one problem. Gook is too dark-skinned to pass as a white man – and that’s exactly how Deegan puts it. So Howard decides to pass Gook off as an East Indian man of mixed parentage named George Guk. This George Guk is a highly educated refugee who does not wish to speak about his traumatic past, which also avoids uncomfortable questions. It is very telling that a mixed race Indian refugee was considered more acceptable in the 1940s than an American-born black man.
Howard also announces that he does not intend to support Gook indefinitely, but that Gook will have to get a job to support himself, whereupon Gook informs Howard that the capitalist system is absurd and a symptom of the barbaric confusion of human existence and that humans should just abolish it. Gook also criticises consumerism and declares that WWII is a barbaric waste of resources, but that humans apparently have so many resources they can’t help but start wars to destroy them. When Howard points out that most humans wish for peace, Gook counters that humans fight from birth on. So in short, Gook is a dark-skinned pacifist Socialist from Mars, who criticises American consumerism. He also utterly fails to be impressed by all the technological miracles Howard introduces him to – radio, telephones, electricity, indoor plumbing – because too many devices are faulty.
Back in New York City, Howard pulls some strings and gets Gook forged papers as well as a job with the company where he works. Gook also moves into Howard’s apartment. And that’s where he meets Hebe, Howard’s lover and the titular milkmaid.
According to Howard, Hebe – though she went by a different name back then – won a milking contest at a county fair in Pennsylvania and was sent to the New York World Fair of 1939 to give milking demonstrations dressed up as Hebe, goddess of dairy. Of course, Hebe isn’t the goddess of dairy, but the goddess of youth and cupbearer to the gods of antiquity, but apparently 1930s dairy promoters had only a very vague grasp of Greek mythology.
Once in New York, Hebe got the taste for big city life and just stayed on, becoming a Broadway starlet. She also married a past-his-prime boxer and had a string of babies with him, four in five years. Hebe’s husband is always on the road, looking for opportunities to make his comeback (even though – as Howard remarks – he never had a career in the first place), so Hebe is alone a lot. That’s why she started an extramarital affair with Howard. However, once blonde and well-endowed Hebe sets eyes on Gook, she forgets all about Howard and embarks on an affair with Gook.
But Howard is far more irritated that Gook has been given a job in the company’s experimental lab, where he is apparently doing invaluable research on some kind of top secret project. Howard is even more irritated that Gook earns three times what Howard earns, even though Gook has no interest in money and deposits his entire paycheck with Howard.
A few months later, Howard finally learns what Gook has been working on. For Gook has been developing an extremely light and extremely strong plastic, which has immediately been put to use to build an experimental bomber, powered by high octane fuel. And who will be the test pilot of this miraculous plane? No other than Gook himself.
However, the plane disappears during its trial flight, along with Gook. Hebe disappears around the same time during a visit to Hebe’s family in Pennsylvania. A mysterious plane was spotted in the area where Hebe was last seen.
Both Hebe and Gook are presumed dead. But Howard is not convinced and wonders whether they took off to Mars together to repopulate the planet.
In the course of the Retro Reviews project, I have unearthed a lot of forgotten gems. “The Martian and the Milkmaid” is not one of them, however. The prose is clunky and there are several strange phrasings and homonym errors, e.g. Margie Henshaw “bides her tongue” at one point. The plot is also predictable and it’s always clear where the story is going. The fact that the title basically spoils the story doesn’t help either.
Nonetheless, “The Martian and the Milkmaid” is an interesting story, because of what it reveals about the attitudes of the time during which it was written. One thing to note is that the narrator Howard Clement is an idiot and a jerk besides. Now narrators who are idiots and jerks are not exactly rare during the golden age, though I’m often not convinced that the author knows that their narrator is a jerk and an idiot. However, I’m pretty sure that Frances M. Deegan knows only too well that Howard is an idiot and a jerk.
For starters, Howard is wrong about almost everything in this story. He is wrong about the meteorites. He is dismissive of the Henshaws. He mistakes Gook for mentally disabled (to be fair, so do the Henshaws, but they at least have a reason, since they do find him wandering around naked in a storm, unable to speak English) and even once he realises the error of his ways, he does not really grasp that Gook is vastly more intelligent than Howard will ever be, as evidenced by the delightful moment when Gook presents Howard with his paycheck, which is thrice what Howard earns.
But Howard isn’t just an idiot, he’s also a jerk and unpleasant. Because from the first line on, Howard does nothing but whine. He whines about bumpy roads and meteorite landings in difficult to access locations and that he has to drive through rural North Dakota on what he assumes is a wild goose chase. He also whines about being stuck with Gook and about Gook getting recognition and earning more than Howard. Finally, Howard basically threatens to sue the Henshaws, should they or Gook as much as touch his equipment.
Finally, Howard treats Hebe like a living sex doll and doesn’t seem to realise that Hebe has ideas and ambitions of her own. Instead, Howard thinks that Hebe is stupid. At one point, Howard even remarks that Hebe should have stayed on the farm or gone back there to become the wife and mother she was meant to be rather than a Broadway starlet. Howard also takes Hebe for granted and doesn’t even realise what is happening when she dumps him for Gook. Instead, he seems to assume that Hebe sleeps with anybody and that she will come back to him.
Talking of Hebe, she doesn’t appear on the page and we only see her through Howard’s eyes (and Howard is an idiot, as we have established), but nonetheless she is very unusual woman character by 1940s standards. For starters, Hebe is very much a woman who knows what she wants and goes out and gets it. And if that means posing as a milkmaid at the 1939 World Fair, then so be it. Hebe also has an ongoing extramarital affair and eventually runs off with another lover, leaving her husband and children behind, and absolutely no one seems to think that this is anything out of the ordinary, let alone that there is anything wrong with her behaviour. Considering how vilified women who have extramarital affairs and/or who abandon their children are to this day, this is really quite remarkable. Finally, Hebe – who is explicitly described as white, plump and blonde – is engaged in an interracial (and interspecies) relationship and again no one seems to think anything about this, twenty-three years before interracial marriage was legalised in all of the US in the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case.
Talking of Gook, he is not only explicitly described as a man of colour, he is also the smartest person in the story by far. Unlike Hebe’s behaviour, Gook’s skin colour does become a plot point, when Howard is forced to concoct a backstory for Gook that will be more acceptable in a deeply racist society than a mere, “He’s black, deal with it.” I also find it interesting that a mixed race refugee of East Indian origin was considered more acceptable than an American born black or mixed race man. And how much do you want to bet that Howard passed off Gook as the son of an Indian maharaja or something?
Though again it’s interesting that except for Howard (whom we know to be a jerk), no one seems to bat an eyelash at the fact that Gook is not white. The Henshaws, a farming couple from North Dakota, a state which is still more than eighty percent white today, take him in, George’s employer gives him a well paid job working on a top secret project during wartime and Hebe has no issues embarking on a relationship with him. Indeed, the only person for whom Gook’s skin colour is an issue is Howard.
Though I do find it strange that Gook was content to just spend forty-three years on the Henshaw farm rather than try to get his hands on more advanced technology. Yes, North Dakota may be remote and rural, but it did have universities in 1901 and even more by 1944. North Dakota also had railroads, so Gook could have left at any time. And since he had access to mail order catalogues and a dictionary and very likely the radio, he must have realised that there is more to Earth than rural North Dakota.
The science in the story is dated, but no worse than what you find in other magazines of the pulp era. Gook’s homeworld is the dry and dying Mars of the pulp science fiction shared solar system. The fact that Gook is humanoid and can interbreed with humans is nothing out of the ordinary for the period either. And the infodump about diatomaceous earth is actually correct, which is more than you can say for many of the infodumps in Astounding, several of which were pure nonsense (“Far Centaurus”, anyone?).
Another thing I noticed is how many food descriptions there are in “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, which is remarkable, considering that food almost never features in golden age speculative fiction. Sometimes, there are cocktails, but otherwise the only food that is mentioned are the ubiquitous food pills. “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, on the other hand, offers a rich farm breakfast consisting of coffee, ham and fried potatoes, thick slices of home-made bread and rich, yellow butter. Considering that this story was published in the middle of WWII, when most of these foodstuffs were rationed, it’s a luxurious breakfast indeed. Furthermore, there also is Margie Henshaw’s homemade chili sauce (which sounds delicious) and ketchup – here spelled “catsup” – which Gook has with everything.
So who was Frances M. Deegan, the author of “The Martian and the Milkmaid”? Frances M. Deegan is another of those enigmatic women writers of the golden age about whom we know next to nothing. She published seventeen SFF stories between 1944 and 1952, all in Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. Some people believe that Frances M. Deegan was a house name and that the person behind the name was William L. Hamling, editor at Ziff-Davis Publishing, publisher of both Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. Hamling happened to be married to a fellow writer named Frances Yerxa (widow of SFF writer Leroy Yerxa), whose maiden name may have been Deegan, which would support that theory. Though stories by Frances M. Deegan continued to appear in Ziff-Davis magazines, well after Hamling left the company. And considering the case of Allison V. Harding, I have to wonder why it’s inevitably women authors who are believed to be house names, while obscure male authors are nonetheless assumed to be actual people, unless proven otherwise.
However, the name Frances M. Deegan also appears around the same time in crime fiction magazines like Detective Story Magazine and Mammoth Detective. The latter was a Ziff-Davis magazine, but Detective Story Magazine was published by Street and Smith. US census records also show that there was a Frances Marie Deegan, who was born 1901 in Iowa and died 1975 in Los Angeles. Interestingly, 1901 is also the year in which Gook crashlands on the Henshaw’s farm.
Eric Leif Davin also dug up a brief autobiographical article that accompanied one of Frances M. Deegan’s stories in Mammoth Detective. According to this article, Deegan was born in Iowa and never married, because no one ever asked her. After a stint as an office worker, she went to Chicago in the 1920s to become an actress and nightclub singer and later moved to New York and St. Louis. Note the parallels to her character Hebe, another country girl trying to make it in show business in the big city. Frances M. Deegan hung out with gangsters, was shot at and beaten up and did PR work for an anti-Prohibition organisation. However, Frances M. Deegan always wanted to write and not just anti-Prohibition leaflets either. One day, she met Raymond A. Palmer, editor at Ziff-Davis, and asked him if she might submit something to him. Palmer told her to go ahead and thus began the SFF and crime writing career of Frances M. Deegan. “The Martian and the Milkmaid” seems to have been her first published story.
So there really appears to have been a writer named Frances M. Deegan and the name similarity to William L. Hamling’s wife was just a coincidence. If the autobiographical article she wrote for Mammoth Detective is even remotely correct, Frances M. Deegan also seems to have had a fascinating life. Once again, I wish we knew more about her.
“The Martian and the Milkmaid” is never going to be a classic. Instead, it’s a typical example of the bread and butter stories (quite literally in this case) that filled the pages of the science fiction pulps of the golden age. But even if the story is no classic, it’s nonetheless interesting and far from the worst story I have reviewed for this project.