My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
‘Got my hair set today. In my opinion, if I had hollower cheeks, I’d be a perfect double for Garbo.’ This is not Norah Hodgkinson writing, but fourteen year-old Joan Wehlen from Illinois, in her diary entry for 3rd May 1937.
The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Joan was born in December 1922, and so was two-and-a-half years older than Norah. Like Norah, she was from a socialist family. She became a scholarship girl at a college attached to Chicago University, where she went on to study anthropology as an undergraduate in the 1940s.
One of the delights of discovering Home Front Girl are the similarities in Joan’s and Norah’s interests, preoccupations and the general giddy tone of some of their diary entries. This shouldn’t surprise us, of course, but I enjoyed all the more Joan’s comments about school and family life, films and classical literature, the colour of her lipstick, her crushes on boys (‘BBB in B’: the Beautiful Blue-eyed Boy in Biology).
Even her doodles remind me of Norah.
Joan’s doodle from 1941, and Norah’s from the same year, drawn on the back of her Latin exam paper.
And, of course, Joan also documented the development of the War. She was more critical than Norah of the Munich Agreement in September 1938:
‘Well – our mythicial “peace” is again floating over the land of Europe while four statesmen pretend to come to an agreement. The headline says, “War Averted” – but I know – it should say “War Postponed” – I know. Hell to – with – politics.’
She reflected intelligently on the rise of Hitler as Germany marched into Czechoslovakia in March 1939: ‘What else could Germany have had after the war except that a dictator would spring up – if not Hitler, another’. In September of the same year, she empathised with mothers of sons and for the next two years and three months, noted wartime developments and wondered when the US would become involved. She greeted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 with a sardonic: ‘Well, Baby, it’s come, what we always knew would come…’
Like Norah, Joan also knitted for the war effort. (While the search is still on for a title for my book about Norah’s wartime escapades with the sailor who received her sea-boot socks and his airman brother, I am struck by what a gift of a title Purl Harbour would have been!)
Joan Wehlen’s diaries have been edited by her daughter, Susan Signe Morrison, a Professor of English at Texas State University. I sense it has been important for her to publish the book as her mother’s work (Joan Wehlen Morrison went on to become an oral historian and published author). Susan has not ‘storied’ the diaries, therefore, but presents extracts so that, save for the introduction and a few editorial notes, the book is entirely her mother’s voice. This decision was no doubt made easier by the fact that Joan, unlike Norah, writes in complete sentences rather than ‘tweets’! Her voice is warm, playful and endearing, her writing variously elegant, philosophical, giddy and sarcastic.
I am, of course, very interested in Susan’s editorial and publishing decisions. Home Front Girl is published by Chicago Review Press as a coming-of-age memoir and part of their Young Adult list. Thus, the book emphasises material that is of historical interest rather than Joan’s poetry and scrapbooks. I can’t help but feel that it is a shame that these were not included as some poems seem to me to do similar work to the diary entries.
However, Susan Morrison has developed a website and a blog to accompany the publication of the book – see: http://homefrontgirldiary.com. The website includes some of Joan’s poetry and extracts from her scrapbooks. Susan has also developed materials to enable teachers and pupils to use Home Front Girl in schools’ history study units. (This is very inspirational for me as I have recently begun discussions with the Head of Humanities at the school in the village where Norah grew about turning some of her archive into KS3 teaching resources. He’s keen – yay!)
Home Front Girl reminds me of Cynthia Huff’s argument that reading and interpreting diaries can be a labour of love; that women’s manuscript diaries in particular can flourish and come to life in the hands of a ‘loving reader’.
Cynthia Huff, ‘Reading as Re-Vision; Approaches to reading Manuscript Diaries’, Biography, 23:3 (2000), 504-523.
Joan Wehlen Morrison, Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013)
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My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America