A couple of weekends ago–in between baking ham, slicing sweet potatoes, chopping cranberries and rolling out biscuit dough– I gave myself the treat of reading Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America. And a treat it was.
Born in 1922, Joan Wehlen, later Joan Wehlen Morrison, grew up in Chicago as the only child of Swedish immigrants. She had a slightly socialist streak, a healthy interest in boys and clothes, a quick pen, and a sharp mind. Her diaries from 1937 to 1943 are smart, lively, funny, and philosophical by turn. She quotes, paraphrases, and parodies Cicero, Shakespeare, Kipling and others to make her points.
Her picture of adolescent life would be interesting enough in itself: she talks about crushes, clothes, class work, and working on the Chicago Maroon* with a fine eye for detail and a self-deprecating wit. But her description of day-to-day life is deepened by a keen historical awareness.** Thoughtful commentary on the larger events of the day, from the Lindbergh kidnapping to the fall of Pearl Harbor, runs side-by-side with accounts of bridge, boys, and biology class . Perhaps most interesting to me are her repeated discussions of herself and her contemporaries as a generation who always knew their war would come. She describes then as fundamentally shaped by the lean years of the Depression, having “a kind of brittle strength they didn’t have before. A kind of body of muscle and bone and not much else. Strong in a fragile way almost and enduring more than the weightier people in days past.”
Comparisons with The Diary of Anne Frank are inevitable–and should be made cautiously. The experiences of the two girls are not parallel. Nonetheless, there is a striking similarity between them in terms of intelligence, curiosity, and sheer vividness .
Edited and annotated with a light hand by Morrison’s daughter, Susan Signe Morrison, Home Front Girl, is a delightful read. It’s marketed as young adult non-fiction, but will interest a wider audience. If you grew up loving Anne of Green Gables and Daddy-Long-Legs, or weeping over Anne Frank, give Home Front Girl a try.***
*The University of Chicago’s student paper
**She would later work as an adjunct professor of history at the New School for Social Research.
***Any male readers out there who know and loved these books?