My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Home Front Girl: A Review

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.

Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime AmericaSo, 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