Reading someone’s diary, even when given permission, can be scary business. Can they write? Is it just going to be a bunch of gossip about people you don’t know? Do they ramble too much?
There are plenty of published diaries out there, some by famous folk and some by people who happened to live in interesting times. Me being me, I’ve always been more interested by the ordinary people living in extraordinary times. How does their version of history differ from the “official” version? What details do they note that historians looking back might not have noticed? Often, as people go through their things, they toss the letters and diaries, thinking there’s nothing important in there. This makes me ache for all that we’ve lost, particularly from people that often aren’t in history books.
So, when I got a note offering me a review copy of Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing up in Wartime America, I was a little excited. This sounded exactly like my kind of book–and it is! Joan Wehlen, born in 1922, kept a diary from the time she was 12. Upon her death in 2010, her daughter found volumes of these notebooks, saw their value, and edited and published them. Three cheers for Susan Signe Morrison! As a historian, I’m thrilled that his diary is now widely available. In doing a quick amazon search, there don’t appear to be many American World War II diaries in print, and even fewer by women. The home front experience is a vital part of the history of any war, and we need this additional voice. Especially because it is such a young voice.
As a reader, Joan’s voice is delightful. There is plenty of gossip about people we don’t know, and boys that she had crushes on, but you quickly realize that Joan was a teenager that paid attention to the world around her. Long before the United States entered the war, she was tracking battles in Europe. She has a feeling that the war will get much bigger and wonders if 1940 will be a key turning point. One of my favorite bits is a passage she wrote a month after the London Blitz. She titled it “To Those of My Time” and it is a very different perspective on what we have come to call “The Greatest Generation.”
Born at the end of one disastrous war and bred between two wars with always the foreknowledge of this war that is come upon us as we reach adulthood. Yes, we are a race apart. Something quite different. I do not think we would any of us for all our talking fit into another time–another century, even another decade.
From our first years on, we have faced peculiar situations, and they have formed our characters within us. (p. 141)
As Joan wrote, she knew she was writing for the future. She went on to become an oral historian, and it’s quite obvious that those historical leanings were present early in her life. In 1942, she wrote:
Mr. Benet was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time–but to the understanding of the individual–not as me–but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that, I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of a social archeologist pawing over my relics. (p. 229)
With her daughter’s help, she has certainly done that.
As I read, I kept thinking of a fictional girl who came of age during a previous war: Rilla Blythe. I do believe these girls would have much to talk about. Both books take the smaller, but ultimately more universal, stories of life on the home front and show how war changes everyone, even those that stayed at home. I think it would be fascinating to teach the two books, hand in hand.
My main quibble is one that the editor couldn’t do much about–the journals end rather abruptly in February 1942. I wanted to know more! But do read the final footnote on that entry for a satisfying conclusion to Joan’s story.
This book is being marketed as young adult non-fiction, which I hope doesn’t limit its readership. Hopefully, readers with an interest in this era won’t be turned off by the young adult classification or miss the book entirely. It still amazes me how many people are ashamed at reading children’s and young adult fiction! But the age of the author certainly makes it more appealing for teens.
For more information on this book, along with some great extra material and resources, do check out the website: http://www.homefrontgirldiary.com
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