Stories about WWI/WWII home fronts
July 21, 2008 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend me some great books about the home front during WWI or WWII.

I'm really interested in stories, not academic histories or anything. Novels, diaries, collected letters, and memoirs would all qualify -- basically, I like stories, fictional or not.

Again, I'm looking for a home front setting, not for soldiers' stories. England, Canada, and America would all be obvious choices, but stuff about noncombatant residents in contested areas (like A Woman in Berlin) is also fair game.

I'm especially interested in the London Blitz and the evacuated schoolchildren, so bonus points for books including those elements. Other examples of what I've enjoyed are The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, and L. M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside. Heck, even the Chronicles of Narnia qualify around the edges.

Thanks in advance!
posted by booksandlibretti to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The Molly American Girl books are set in the US during WWII. It's the 10-year-old viewpoint.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:42 PM on July 21, 2008

It probably qualifies more as children's literature, but I remember my dad reading "Taffy of Torpedo Junction" to us when we were kids. It was extra special since it took place in our home state of NC (which was hard to come by, kid-novel wise), and spins a pretty good yarn involving the various U-Boat raids on the Outer Banks during WWII.

"A Death In The Family", by James Agee, takes place in Knoxville, TN against the backdrop of WWI, and is a great deal more adult in tone. Beautiful prose, almost ruinied for millions of Americans by high school lit classes. Even if you don't read the entire book, the opening essay about summertime in the deep south will stay with you for a long time.

Happy reading!
posted by littlerobothead at 12:53 PM on July 21, 2008

I fondly remember reading Summer of My German Solider by Bette Green in elementary school.

Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories are two novellas set in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power. Vignettes from this work inspired the play I Am A Camera, which in turn inspired the musical Cabaret.
posted by desuetude at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2008

Japan at War describes all aspects of Japan's experience in the Great Pacific War, including the heartbreaking struggles of the population to support a military machine that is dragging them to hell.
posted by SPrintF at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2008

For Canada, Barry Broadfoot collected oral histories, (Ten Lost Years, about the Depression is my personal favourite). Pierre Burton is another Canadian who wrote about WWII (Vimy, My Times, Marching to War). Also, The Canadian Housewife has chapters on the homefront during both wars. I haven't read it but I know a classic is " Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919 Desmond Morton and J. L. Granatstein(1989)". Also, "Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, Laura M. MacDonald, (2005)." about the largest man-made explosion pre-nuclear detonations on a cargoship loaded with wartime explosives in 1917 is a fantastic, fantastic book with a lot of personal details. A couple of young adult novels that I enjoyed about Camp X were by Eric Walters (Camp X, Camp 30 - I haven't read Fools Gold) that detail the espionage camp in Canada.
posted by saucysault at 1:03 PM on July 21, 2008

Richard Powers' Operation Wandering Soul features a long chapter about the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz. The rest of the book takes place in a more modern setting.
posted by rabbitsnake at 1:21 PM on July 21, 2008

He was a bit past his zenith when he wrote it, but H. G. Wells' Mr. Britling Sees it Through is about exactly that.
posted by jet_silver at 1:30 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: You'll find some good things if you browse the Persephone Books catalogue, including Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, Mollie Panter-Downes's Wartime Stories, and Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg's On the Other Side: Letters to My Children from Germany 1940-46.

There's also a recent compilation of material from the Mass Observation archive, Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War, edited by the late Sandra Koa Wing. It's had some rave reviews: the Guardian called it 'an authentic living, breathing history, almost cinematic in its immediacy'.
posted by verstegan at 1:34 PM on July 21, 2008

WWI: Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy, set in Britain; Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel cycle, set in Russia.
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on July 21, 2008

Heinrich Böll's Group Portrait With Lady is set among ordinary people in a German village, focussing mainly on WWII and the relationship between a German woman and an interned Russian man. Böll's Billiards at Half-Past Nine is also good.
posted by goo at 2:16 PM on July 21, 2008

Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a classic in Canada.
posted by Beardman at 2:32 PM on July 21, 2008

Response by poster: My fault for bringing up Anne of Green Gables, but I am interested primarily in works for adults -- I'm going to be reading these myself, so The Night Watch is a much better fit. Also, I'm not really interested in purely historical works, since I have a pretty good general background; I'd prefer narratives to briefer collected experiences.

Later today I'm stopping by my academic library (I only have access for another month!) and picking up the ones they have, so I'm pretty psyched. Looks like I'll be coming away with Few Eggs and No Oranges, Operation Wandering Soul, Mr. Britling Sees it Through (Project Gutenberg is great, but hard to bring outdoors), A Death in the Family, and Japan at War. I'm putting in ILL requests for a few others, but I'm not sure whether they'll arrive in time. (And Isherwood, Summer of My German Soldier, and the American Girl series are old favorites.) Thanks again!
posted by booksandlibretti at 2:48 PM on July 21, 2008

I'm really interested in stories, not academic histories or anything.

Check out the works of Studs Terkel, who collects oral histories. Example: The Good War. It's non-fiction, but has the storytelling aspect you're looking for.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:51 PM on July 21, 2008

For novels: seconding Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy; also Ian McEwan's Atonement is set in England during WWII and is fantastic.
posted by pombe at 3:03 PM on July 21, 2008

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercey! This is one of my all-time favorite books. She follows ten characters through the war. Mostly homefront: 7 are Americans on the homefront (though two actually go to Europe with the OSS), 1 is a French teenager who gets involved in the Resistance, and 2 are in the miltary.

Piercey really did her research, and you get a very good idea of what it was like to live during that time. Some of the people are pretty normal (like one college student who ends up working in a munitions factory) and others are a lot more extraordinary: a political science PhD student who goes to London to work for the OSS, a woman who gets to be one of the first female pilots for the Air Force, the aforementioned French Jewish teenager who gets in with the Resistance.

Great storytelling, great characters. One of those books where I've occasionally found myself wondering, in the ten years since I first read the book "whatever happened to [x character]?"

Oh, and the character who goes to London ends up there during the blitz.
posted by lunasol at 3:09 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy. Pure, unadulterated Binchy-grade schlock, but it is a page-turner, and the beginning of the book is about a girl who gets sent away from London during the Blitz.
posted by lunasol at 3:14 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, edited by Anne Boston, is a collection of short stories by female authors describing women's experiences of the home front in the UK and the US between 1939-1949.

It's well worth reading. I found my copy in the remainders bin when I worked for a bookstore, the cover is stripped, and I've read the whole thing a couple of times. MeMail me an address and I'll send it to you, gratis.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:10 PM on July 21, 2008

connie willis' short sf story "fire watch" mostly takes place in blitz-era london.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:48 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I cannot recommend The Secret Annexe highly enough. It's an anthology of war diarists, and while there are some entries from soldiers' diaries included, the majority of entries are from the home front. There's a huge variety of wars - they're not all WW1 or WW2 - but there's plenty from the eras you're interested in. Here's a review.
posted by andraste at 5:02 PM on July 21, 2008

I took a class once titled The US Homefront in World War II taught by Dr Victoria Allison. Here are the books and articles that were on her syllabus (semi-organised by theme):

Why Fight?
No Clear and Present Danger (Russett)
* "The American Century" (Luce)
* "The Reluctant Belligerent" (Divine)

Defining the Enemy
By Order of the President (Robinson)

Mobilising the Economy
* "How About Some Meat?" (Jacobs)
* "The Politics of Sacrifice on the American Home Front in World War II" (Leff)
* "The War of Machines" (Kennedy)
* "Detroit, Michigan" (Meyer)

Mobilising Hearts and Minds: Official Propaganda
The Censored War (Roeder)

Mobilising Hearts and Minds: Hollywood
Projections of War (Doherty)

Men at War
The World Within War (Linderman)

Women at War
* "I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James" (Westbrook)
* "Creating GI Jane" (Meyer)
* "Caring for Rosie's Children" (Riley)
* "Patriot or Prostitute?" (Hegarty)

Children at War
Daddy's Gone to War (Tuttle)

Double V for Victory
If He Hollers Let Him Go (Himes)
* "Constructing Gi Joe Louis" (Sklaroff)
* "Last Hired, First Fired" (Anderson)
* "'You Wouldn't Want One of 'Em Dancing with Your Wife'" (Boris)
* "Washington, DC" (Meyer)

Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon (Pagan)

Anxieties at War's End
* "Building a Straight State" (Canaday)
* "'First a Negro... Incidentally a Veteran'" (Onkst)
* "Reconsidering Truman's Claim..." (Bernstein)
* "Prescriptions for Penelope" (Hartmann)

Mythologising the War
* "Saving Private Ryan and the Postwar Memory in America" (Bodnar)
* "The Good War?" (Polenberg)

The starred (*) are articles or book chapters that you will need access to JSTOR to view (or you can just MeMail me for them.)

John Dower also wrote some excellent books about attitudes toward Japan in and after World War II (e.g., War Without Mercy, Embracing Defeat)

These are mostly academic works - they can be very illuminating, but a lot of them are dry, serious reads that would make for really awful television (unlike what you might get from a WWII history factory like the one built by the Ambrose family.)

However, for some entertaining homefront-during-wartime television, do check out the ITV series Foyle's War
posted by Sangermaine at 7:07 PM on July 21, 2008

I should add that of the above list, I think the only work of fiction is If He Hollers Let Him Go (Himes)
posted by Sangermaine at 7:11 PM on July 21, 2008

The U.S.A. trilogy by John dos Passos is what you want (it's WWI plus a few years on either side) and so much more besides. There is some stuff from the perspective of soldiers in the book, but much more of it is about civilians. And it's SO good. It'll take you a month or two to read, but you'll feel like you lived through the entire era it portrays. I thought historical fiction had to be boring until I read it.
posted by crinklebat at 7:33 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: Oh, and since you mention Rilla you may be interested in Lucy Maud Montegomery's Journals, she chronicles what a life was like in her small Canadian village during WWI (Vol II) and WW2 (Vol V). The whole series of Journals are fascinating though, so you should try to read them all - they are very well annotated and she was a complex person. She write a lot about Rilla, I believe it was her favourite book.

Also, Ben Wicks collected interviews with children that were evacuated from London called No Time to Wave Goodbye, he tells his own story of being evacuated to Canada at 12. It is filled with heart-breaking stories and explains the government policies dating from the 1920's that set the entire plan in motion.
posted by saucysault at 4:54 AM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: I was about to post almost this same question, and I found this thread.

Based on this thread, and some other sleuthing, here are some of the books I'm going to check out (I'm looking specifically for WWI set-in-England fiction):

The Night Watch, mentioned by OP;

Land Girls;

Wave Me Goodbye;

The Chestnut Tree; and

Good Night, Mr. Tom (young adult, I might skip).

I'm really looking forward to these books -- how funny to find this thread right when I was about to post almost the same question. For me it's the influence of Foyle's War.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:05 AM on August 14, 2008

That is, WWII set-in-England fiction. Not that anyone's here.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:28 AM on August 14, 2008

Hi ClaudiaCenter! Don't dismiss Goodnight Mr Tom cos it's a kids' book. It's a very good novel, and one I'd totally forgotten about.
posted by goo at 10:16 AM on August 14, 2008

« Older Go back for more school or take a *meh* first job?   |   Algerian culture in Paris? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.