Sunday, June 10, 2012
Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson
I soaked up every word and detail about the daily life of women during World War II whether she be up to her elbows in diapers, farmer's fields, blood and guts or tea bags. Against a backdrop of the current political and economic situations of this era are the thoughts and writings of a group of women who share their personal stories of striving for independence, meeting their first love, travel beyond their home county and all while the prospect of losing everything but the clothes on their back, as well as their lives, in the blink of an eye is a reality. What I didn't expect was that once the final all-clear had been sounded and life went back to some semblance of what it was like before 1939, most of the women missed the excitement of it all. Not the wondering if each day would be their last but the feeling of respect, pride and accomplishment that comes with position and purpose.
In the early days of World War II, some young women chose the service to join based on the cut of the uniform or even the hat. Women appearing at airplane factories in baggy overalls were called all sorts of names by the men still employed there. So prejudiced was the thinking that women should remain by the cooker that even the sight of Princess Elizabeth in her armed forces attire had people tsk tsking. But once the bombs started to fall the allure of a sharp uniform quickly fell away leaving these young women to get on with the task at hand and to deal with situations that months before would have seemed impossible. I will never forget the story of one women who knew German and was employed to listen to enemy airmen as they flew in air raids. The German pilots knew they were being listened in on and would openly flirt over the air waves. During one mission a familiar pilot was shot down but as his plane spiralled and burned he cried out for his mother before finally crashing. Facing death while in the capacity of their job was difficult enough but then some of those women would wait on the tarmac until dawn for sight of their lover's plane, long overdue from a mission. In too many cases the wait was in vain.
Reading Marghanita Laski's To Bed with Grand Music I thought that the adultery and amount of time focused on sex by the characters must have been exaggerated. Let me tell you, after reading Millions Like Us...it was not! Not only was there a massive explosion of sexual awakening amongst a group of young women who normally wouldn't have dreamt of being sexually active before marriage but adultery was also extremely common. So common in fact that people were writing to their spouses about their love lives with their latest partners. My girlfriend is pregnant or there will be an extra toddler at home when you arrive back were often paragraphs in letters sent home or to soldiers' bases. One that did make me laugh though was a telegram sent to a husband who had been away for two years saying 'son born stop mother and baby doing well stop'. Thinking his wife had been having an affair left the soldier feeling despondent but he soon found out his wife was sending word about his mother!
There are so many stories from this book that I could share but I need to get out and enjoy the day. I know that summertime isn't typically when most people turn their bookish eye to non-fiction but believe me, this book will educate and entertain you with every page. For those interested in literature from this era you will find quotes and anecdotes from such authors as Barbara Pym, Mollie Panter-Downes, Vera Brittain, Nella Last, Marguerite Patten, Nina Bawden and Helen Forrester. Need I say more?