Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America (Chicago Review Press, November, 2012, Young Adult) is the actual diary of Joan Wehlen Morrison (1922-2010), beginning in 1937, when she is fourteen, and continuing to February, 1942. Joan Wehlen was clearly destined to become a writer--her diary entries, transcribed by her daughter after her death, are funny, coherent, thoughtful, and diverting.
Joan starts her diary as a high school sophomore in Chicago, at a time when the country was recovering (mentally and materially) from the Great Depression. Her journal entries are full of the everyday doings of a bright, friendly girl--thoughts on her teachers, classmates, a bit about whether she's thin, what she thinks about religion, watching her paramecium inexplicably die in biology, her work on the school paper, boys she's crushing on....and darker things too. She is tested for tb, and found to be on the borderline of having it--she must periodically have her chest x-rayed. And even in 1937, the shadow of war haunts her nightmares.
As the war in Europe progress, and as Joan grows up, she (naturally) moves beyond the light-hearted school girl she was. Though I found these years less immediately entertaining, from a social history point of view, they were interesting as all get out. I was powerfully reminded that it was not clear in the late thirties in the US that this was a war that we were inevitably going to have to fight. Joan is terrified by the thought of it, thinks of Winston Churchill as "pig face," and rejects patriotic fervor. And then, only a few months before Joan puts down her diary, Pearl Harbor is bombed. There's a forced brightness to these entries, with Joan talking more about boys than about the war, but under that gloss, it's clear that it's filling her mind.
This is one I'd give in a second to anyone who loves historical school girl stories and stories of home front girls--I was variously reminded of Daddy-Long-Legs, Betsy-Tacy, and Rilla of Ingleside. If you like those books, you will almost certainly join me in loving Joan's high school diary entries with a passionate intensity, laughing out loud at both her words and her doodles, and sharing with her the sometimes painful process of growing up. I wish I could have been her friend, because she really does sound like a kindred spirit:
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm really laughing at the things I say or if I mean them. I catch myself saying things and find myself grinning at something--inside I mean." (page 23).
Here's one example of a passage that made me laugh out load--Joan studying biology on her bus ride home in 1938:
"Then I went back to the difference between man and animals. Very slight, it seems. I was testing myself out to see if I was human. Seeing if my thumb was opposable (by wiggling it) and if I had a definite chin (thrusting it out) and if my great toe was opposable (very hard in shoes). By this time, the man next to me also seemed to need proof that I was human and took quite an interest in my experiments. In most points I seemed human so I gave up and went back to one-celled animals. Man went back to his magazine" (page 77).
Joan may be naive in some ways, as so many young teenagers are, but she is not the product of a "more innocent time." In one searing entry written in 1940 (pages 140 to 146), she reflects on her generation--how their parents, coming out of WW I "...had the awful feeling of being "timed"-that they must hurry and gobble life or it would leave them." How "...though most of us were loved, we were, most of us, lucky not to be abortions." Then came the Great Depression, and Joan tells how her family, like so many others, lost their house and became poor. And how those lean years shaped the physical health of her generation.
"Oh you, my generation! --we were lovely lot! Sharp minds -- arguing all the time and brittle bodies and even more brittle laughter--and all the time knowing that we were growing up to die. Because we weren't fooled, you know. All through those bright-colored years of adolescence we knew we were growing up to disaster. For at least four years--well, three, before it happened, we knew it was coming. Some sort of inner sense of war lay upon us." (page 143)
And having read Joan's descriptions of her nightmares of war, I believe her.
In one of her last entries, she says that she thinks she's written her
diary "with the intention of having it read someday....I rather like the
idea of a social archaeologist pawing over my relics" (page 229). And indeed, this is one I'd recommend with great conviction to social historians.
I just really truly wish she'd kept on writing in her diary! The ending comes too soon (and I was expecting from the title that we'd see more actual "home front-ness), and though we know, from the introduction her daughter wrote, that Joan went on to a happy marriage, three kids, and a career as a writer, still, I would have liked more of her own words...and I would really have liked her thoughts on the 1950s and the Cold War! She did, however, go on to write, with her son, a book about the sixties--From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1987).
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher. Will be kept for re-reading and sharing.
(I've thrown this into this week's Non-Fiction Monday round-up, hosted today by The Flatt Perspective)