When I started at Lerner, the first books I read were the old In Grandma’s Day series. I love reading about family life in other eras—how different some aspects were and how many others seem the same. One of my favorite periods is the World War II era. That’s my parents’ generation, and I grew up hearing stories about their experiences, looking at old photos from my mother’s keepsake book, listening to Big Band music, and watching the movies they loved. So when Lerner produced Growing Up in World War II and America in the 1940s, I eagerly read them.
The home front was always my primary interest in reading social history from that era. But lately I’ve become very interested in women’s experiences in war. Some time last year, I watched Band of Brothers on cable and loved it. I thought, There are hardly any women in this entire miniseries, and it’s still interesting! Then I thought, Wait, why aren’t there women? Weren’t there US nurses in Europe in World War II? You’d think Easy Company would’ve at least passed by a couple. So I did a little research and discovered that, yes, tens of thousands of US nurses served in Europe (and in North Africa and the Pacific). Some arrived on Normandy’s beaches days after D-Day. They crossed Europe close behind the troops, assembling and disassembling field and evacuation hospitals as they went.
This information sent me on an amazon.com expedition. I wanted to hear the nurses’ stories firsthand, and luckily, several books on the market are based on primary source material. I’m currently reading And If I Perish. The women’s stories are remarkable. When army nurses first arrived in the Philippines in the late 1930s, they were expected to wear picture hats and high heels for publicity photos. They had no military rank or benefits. By 1942, army nurses were slogging through snow and mud (or blistering heat) in boots, helmets, and olive drab combat uniforms. They faced the realities of war with amazing courage. After the war, some stayed in Europe to tend to the victims of concentration camps, while others returned home to serve in veterans’ hospitals.
But I haven’t forsaken the home front. With the help of my movie buff father-in-law, I’ve collected a few home-front-themed movies. Being a huge Myrna Loy fan, I started with The Best Years of Our Lives, the bittersweet story of returning soldiers trying to rebuild their relationships with their wives and girlfriends. Now I’m in the middle of Since You Went Away, in which Claudette Colbert raises two teenage girls alone after her ad-exec husband joins the army. As I said, it’s always fascinating to see how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.