I did it. Many teenage girls do. Every night, well almost, pour my heart out in my journal. I told all: everything from how hard the algebra test had been; how the car wouldn't start and I had to walk to school (agony); how cute that Jimmy F. was; even sometimes, a shred or two from the greater world. "We have a new president." "A tornado swept across Kansas." Those journals are around—somewhere. I've wondered for years, when I do find them, what will I do with them? In Home Front Girl, Joan Wehlen Morrison and her daughter Susan Signe Morrison give me not only inspiration, but also direction.
Joan Wehlen grew up in Chicago during the turbulent years leading up to the Second World War. Just as I did in Texas some years later, Joan shared her life with her journal. Early on, daily joys and agonies dominated as a fourteen-year-old rejoices at her first date and worries about her Latin homework. But as Joan matures, so do her entries; school and social life continue as she also responds to the growing darkness that encircles her life, all lives—the coming of war.
"All the boys I know will be old enough to die in a war in 1940," the 15-year-old laments early in 1938. War is a presence and a threat through the rest of her youth. Maps of China and Japan dominate several dreams; the repeal of the arms embargo trumps the latest movie shared with Dad; and then there's the stunning day, December 7, 1941, when everything stops-hard reading, even now. The threat of war and then the actual war are woven into the fabric of the life of a girl growing from high school student to University of Chicago scholar, from first date to meeting the young man who will be her husband for over 60 years.
This book is more than an interesting and well-written account of an individual; it is history. It's been said that Journalism is the first draft of history, but perhaps we should amend that to "public history." Journals, and this one is a fine example, are certainly the first draft of history as well. Wehlen recognized this when at 19, after reporting on a speech by Stephen Vincent Benét, discussing the role of diaries in history, she adds, "I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday."
She maintained her intention. She kept up with the journals, and she made sure that her daughter did, as well. Kudos to that daughter, Susan Signe Morrison, who took volumes and volumes of diaries, journals, school notebooks, and other documents and crafted both a loving portrait of her mother as a young girl, and an accurate history of time and place.
Memoir and journal lovers will relish this book. But I can also see it on American History reading lists in both high schools and colleges. Were I ever to teach a journaling workshop to young people, this one would top the list.
When I really appreciate a book, I share it. A friend who has a birthday coming up might want to watch her mail box. Don't worry. It'll be brand new. Mine is a keeper and has already found a place on my overcrowded bookshelves.
A graduate of the University of Chicago, Joan Wehlen Morrison (1922-2010) taught at the New School for Social Research and wrote for many popular publications as well as two books on oral histories. She and Robert Morrison, also a writer, shared 66 years of marriage and three children. One of those children, Susan Signe Morrison, studied at Swarthmore and Brown University. A professor of English literature at Texas State University—San Marcos, she is also the author of scholarly books and journal articles. Learn more about Susan Morrison on her website and about both author and editor on the book website.
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