Thanks to Pen & Sword Books for offering me a copy of this book that I freely choose to review.
This book is the product of the author’s work in the archival collection of the Home Front at that Second World War Experience Centre in Yorkshire. It is easy to imagine what fascinating material the collection must contain, and how difficult it must be to choose some witness testimonies over others, but this collection offers a unique point of view, that of boys and girls who lived through the war in Britain. As the author explains, over 200 personal accounts have been used in its creation and they offer as many different points of view as children there were.
The book is divided into several chapters by themes. Although some are chronological (like the beginning, the end and the one about the bombing), some are more general and cover the whole period.
The Beginning talks about the initial thoughts about the war and how life changed (many of the things were surprising to me although I’m sure many people will have heard stories about it. For instance, I knew about the blackouts, but it never occurred to me that the names of train stops would be removed and travelling at night with nothing to help you orient yourself in a city [no lit shop windows, names…] was not only difficult but also dangerous [light coloured cars were forbidden and pedestrians couldn’t be easily seen either]. The chapter ‘Air-Raid Shelters’ shows the steps the government took (steel shelters, Andersons, Morrisons…) and also what individuals themselves did (hide in the cupboard under the stairs, which saved quite a few people, simply ignore the alarms, dig underground trenches [especially soldiers who’d been in WWI], fortify a room, go to the underground in London) to try and keep safe. The pictures that accompany the paperback are an eye-opener to anybody who didn’t live through it. The chapter on evacuation is one of the most heart-wrenching, with a whole range of experiences, from the kids who left the city to face prejudice in rural areas, to those who found a second family and were made feel like royalty. In ‘invasion’ there is discussion of the plans families made in case of invasion (some determined to die rather than be taken prisoner) and also their home-spun anti-spy activities. ‘Shortages’ will probably be familiar to those with relatives who lived through the war, and it is a tribute in particular to mothers’ imagination and inventive when trying to make up for the things that were missing (I loved the mock banana sandwiches made by boiling and mashing up parsnip and mixing up some banana essence). ‘Schools’ emphasises the difficult experiences of those children who missed schooling or had to try and learn in classrooms with neither roofs nor materials, with children of all ages mixed together and hardly any teachers. ‘Entertainment’ shows that children can see opportunities to have fun anywhere. While some children were terrified, many others felt inspired and made use of shrapnel, diffused bombs, ruins of buildings, to role play or to design games and bombs. ‘War Effort’ shares the work older children (some as young as 12) did to help, including running messages, working for the post office bringing the dreaded bad news, girls helping in hospitals, and how many of them moved on to join the armed forces when they grew up. ‘The Bombing of Britain’ will bring memories to many and it covers not only London but many of the other cities, and phenomena such as the families who would leave the cities every night and go back in the morning. The resolution and the population and the way people took everything in their stride come across clear in these accounts. People who survived would dust themselves off and carry on. ‘The End’, talks about the celebrations for those who could celebrate and the sad moments of those who couldn’t.
The book has very funny moments, and sad and hard to read ones too, some inspiring and some not so much. The author is very good at remaining invisible, choosing passages that illustrate different angles of the same theme and letting speak for themselves, without interfering, and the approach increases the power of the accounts. I marked passages and quotes as I went along, but I ended up with so many it was very difficult to choose. But here are a few, to give you a flavour of the book:
Here, talking about taking refuge in cellars:
There was an element of risk sheltering in that cellar with an open fire considering they were ‘within six feet of an operating gas main and visible pipes’, but the general thinking in Charles’s cellar was that it was better to ‘be bombed in comfort’. (17)
Talking about the bombings and the state of disrepair of the houses:
Pamela had her house windows broken, then repaired and covered in sticky tape, and then had the lot of them blown out again. Her mother, being practical, merely commented, ‘Oh well, I will not have to clean them.’
And talking about the VE Day celebrations:
To Irene’s astonishment, one of the elderly church ladies ‘of staid and sober habits’ turned up resplendent in an eye-catching red dress and was later seen leading the conga up the street. (171) It seems the conga was pretty popular.
I am not a big reader of conventional military history (battles, strategy or detailed fight scenes) but I’m always intrigued by what happens back home during any wars and how the world carries on in some fashion for the rest of population while the fighting goes on elsewhere (at least in conventional wars). The memories of those children and their accounts of their experiences at the time might be tinged with nostalgia in some cases, but in others, it reflects the long-term effects of experiences lived so long ago and that have not been forgotten. It is impossible to read this book and not think about those children who, still today, live in a constant state of war and danger, and how disruptive this will be to their lives if they reach adulthood.
I recommend this book to anybody interested in the home front angle of the war (World War II in Britain in particular, but any wars), in stories about children’s subject to extreme situations, and anybody who enjoys history as told not by politicians and big names, but by the people in the street. A great and important book that should be required reading for school-age children.
Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.
As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry). Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.
The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.
Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.
Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.
Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.
The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.
If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.
As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.
Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.
In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.
After finishing Home Front, I went back and looked over my list of Kristin Hannah books I've read. I noticed a pattern -- while I enjoyed some more than others, in general her books fall in the 3-star range for me. Not bad, but not exceptional. It also seems my issues fall into similar categories -- characters I can't connect to or don't like and a plot that drags on longer than necessary.
Home Front was no different for me. While I appreciate all attention Hannah brought forward for PTSD, I felt it could have been more powerful if at least one less issue had been included. I listened to the audiobook version (which I did not like, by the way) and there was an interview with Hannah at the end. One comment she made was she wanted readers to take away that this was a book about a family trying to come back together. I personally wish the drama between Jo and her husband, Michael, had been a little less than it was. Michael's comment before Jo leaves for the war made me dislike him almost instantly. I think the challenges of deployment and PTSD that Hannah was reaching for still could have been achieved without going that far. They were both characters who didn't communicate with each other well - I can understand that and it should have stopped there and it still would have been enough to create a challenge when Jo returned home.
Side note - I wanted to slap Betsy, Jo and Michael's 12-year-old daughter. I find it difficult to believe either would have let her walk all over them the way she did. Complete disrespect -- both before and after Jo left for war. Michael finally started to step up but it was just a half effort. I have a 10-year-old. I get it. They push limits and test their boundaries. They are hormonal. But sweet baby Jesus, enough is enough. Be the parent.
New Zealand born, Australian raised Nancy Wake, is one of my all time heroines. I'm not doing the #bookadayuk because I fail at remembering to do anything daily past waking up and stumbling around for coffee. But the entry for "Home front" got me thinking of her, and oddly enough I'd just been reminded of her recently when my daughter asked me for something "like Code Name Verity". I figured you can't beat the real thing, and Nancy's story beats most fiction anyway.
Married to a frenchman at the time of the fall of France, she was living in Marseille, and almost immediately signed up as a courier for the Maquis (the french resistance), risking her life daily to pass intelligence between cells. Under the code name "The White Mouse" she soon became one of the Gestapo's most wanted. Arrested, but somehow released after a friend managed to convince the gestapo she wasn't in fact the white mouse, but rather a cheating wife, she escaped in a daring trek across the Pyrenees mountains, eventually making her way to England. Sadly her husband was not so lucky, tortured to death by the Gestapo, refusing to the end to tell them where she was, something Nancy herself didn't find out until after the war and always blamed herself for.
As if this wasn't enough adventure and danger for one lifetime though, she proceeded to train as a paramilitary at a resistance training camp in England, and then parachuted back into France behind enemy lines, to be the british intelligence liason for the local Maquis in Auvergne. Far from being just a liason, she was an active combatant, and several times in command of groups of Maquis during fire fights with the Germans.
This was one tough, tough little lady. Wikipedia relates one story: "At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but Wake did. She said after that it was war, and she had no regrets about the incident." Another: "They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised".
In any case, war stories for many of us, from lands who were never directly touched by war, are often divided into the home front stories (those who stayed behind) and the front lines stories (those who went to war). Sometimes it's hard to remember that for many people, the front line is the home front. And sometimes we forget the astonishing stories of those who weren't soldiers, but put their lives on the line to defend their homes.
I would rather like to recommend her own autobiography "The White Mouse", which I originally read in 1985 when it first came out and several times since then. It's delightfully matter of fact and self-deprecating, and very candid even when it doesn't exactly put Wake in the best light. There are also two very good biographies of her, one written in the 60's, and another from the 90's, although I personally prefer the earlier one (that's the Braddon book above). But any of them are fine reads, about a truly amazing lady.
Nancy died in 2011, aged 98.
ETA: See also this "Badass of the Week" short biography, it's a hoot: http://badassoftheweek.com/index.cgi?id=27450552861