Monday, May 27, 2013

Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49


I'm finally making some real progress with my TBR Pile Challenge list.  However, I skipped over the actual selections and read one of the alternates:  Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49 is a nonfiction book, selections from her diaries during WWII.  When the war breaks out, Nella Last is a middle-aged housewife, mother of two adult sons, living in Barrow-in-Furness, England, a port town north of Liverpool and Manchester.  Nella was participating in the Mass Observation project, in which she sent weekly installments observing her life and how it changed during wartime.  Her youngest son Cliff volunteers and is eventually posted to the Middle East; her older son Arthur is sent to Northern Ireland. Nella chronicles her days as a housewife coping with the changes due to the war, her fears for the safety of her children and her community; and writes about her participation in the local Centre, the soldier's Canteen, and her volunteer work at a Red Cross thrift shop which donates care packages to POWs.  I'm really interested by the WWII era, especially how it affected people on the home front, more so than military stories.

This book took a lot longer than I expected.  It's ten chapters of diary entries from 1939 until 1945, and it's only about 300 pages long, so there are a lot of short sections -- easy to read just a little bit at a time. But parts of this book were very painful to read about.  I'm usually fascinated by the aspects of war viewed from the home front, but the fact that it isn't fiction made it harder -- Nella was a real person, and this whole time was so difficult for her and everyone else in her situation.

As an American who's never had to live through anything remotely like this, I felt so bad reading her diaries -- not just about the fears of the losing friends and family, and the terror of bomb scares, but just the difficulty people endured every single day.   Gasoline rationing, blackouts, raising your own food, the scarcity of everything -- it just made me realize how fortunate I've been.  I wouldn't say I've had a privileged existence but I've never worried about having food on the table and a roof over my head and gas in the car. 

It was also sort of difficult to read about some of the personal issues Nella was working through.  Nella was only a little older than me when she started writing, though she was married much younger and her boys were already grown.  I got the distinct impression her marriage was not very happy; she mentions repeatedly that she's now standing up for herself more after almost thirty years of marriage; that her husband wants to be the center of her life, and that's she's recovering from a nervous breakdown.  After reading the entire book, I never did figure out what her husband's first name is!!!  I don't think she ever referred to him by his first name, just "my husband."  She mentions friends, relatives, and her sons over and over by their first name, but not her husband.  I'm not sure what it means but it doesn't sound good.

Ultimately, the book is uplifting, and we begin to see how her family and community are recovering from the war, though the rationing and difficulties are far from over.  There is a follow-up book called Nella Last's Peace which I'd also like to read, and a third volume, Nella Last in the 1950s.   I also own some other WWII diaries and nonfiction: Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson; Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson; and Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield.  However, I think I may take a break before reading any more books about World War II.

14 comments:

  1. I read the first book and I thought Nella wrote very well. Somewhere towards the middle of the second book I started to find it all so bleak that I didn't read any further. That's not to say that I didn't like the book, though.

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    1. It was rather bleak, wasn't it? I think that's why it took me so long to finish it. Hers didn't seem like a very happy life even before the war.

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  2. I've read all Nella's diaries & I agree that her life can be very bleak at times. However, I also enjoyed the humour & the pride Nella took in her contrivances in her housekeeping & cooking. It was also interesting to see how she became more confident through her war work. Her husband's name is Will, by the way, although she doesn't often mention it. As you say, he's usually "my husband" - maybe because she wasn't writing for herself but for the MO people. Vere Hodgson's diaries are wonderful. Vere is much more of the stiff upper lip school but you can still see the trauma underneath.

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    1. I'm glad someone knew the husband's name because I couldn't remember seeing it anywhere! I did like how she became more confident. She was quite a wonder the way she managed with the housekeeping and the cooking during rationing, and all the war work. I wonder if people today could make do as well.

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  3. I remember watching a dramatization of this, called Housewife, 49. I meant at the time to look for the book - not realizing it's part of a series. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. I do want to watch the adaptation, I know it's on Netflix and my library may have it also. I don't know if the rest of the series is part of the documentary or just the first one.

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  4. I read all three of the Nella Last books and fell in love with her. She reminds me of so many women of that period, although the ones I knew were Americans. It was the time of making do and accepting your lot in life for a lot of women, no whining allowed for a lot of them. There is something about Nella that reminds me of my own late mother, always trying to make the best of all sorts of deficiencies in her life. I admire that.

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    1. There seems to be a lot more of the stiff upper lip/making do with your lot in previous times. I can't imagine what people would do nowadays with rationing -- they pitch a fit if their internet or cell phone is out, much less rationing!

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  5. I'll have to look for this book. I love reading diaries and letters. Although it does make my personal journal seem really lame.

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    1. I know! My own life seems so trivial compared to what they were going through.

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  6. Ooh, this one has been on my list for a while. I read the Mass Observation anthology Wartime Women (I think that's where they got this diary?), and it was fantastic. Really made me want to read many more firsthand accounts, so I got the book Demobbed as well, which sounds so good.

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    1. Yes, she was part of the Mass Observation, but I haven't read that anthology, I'll have to look for it. She's also included in Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, an anthology of wartime journals from various women all over Britain. I own that one as well but haven't started it yet. I'll also have to look for Demobbed, I hadn't heard of it before.

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  7. When you decide to pick up another diary from WWII hopefully you can get your hands on Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, it's fantastic!

    Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) made me laugh when she commented on my blog that Nella was a woman you could like straight away and then before long be crossing the road to avoid. I thought she hit the nail on the head!

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    1. I do have Few Eggs and No Oranges -- I'm a huge fan of Persephone books and I have quite a few unread on my shelf. I'm a bit put off by the sheer size, however.

      I'll have to look for that blog posting. I'm not sure how I'd react if I met Mrs. Last herself (or rather, someone like her). She does seem like someone who'd somehow entrap you in conversation.

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