Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Our Longest Days by Sandra Koa Wing (editor)

Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War written by the writers of Mass Observation and edited by the late Sandra Koa Wing is different from other WWII books I've read in that it is comprised of diary entries from real people living in England during the war. Mass Observation was established by Tom Harrisson in Dec. 1936 to get a feel for the thoughts and opinions of the British people, which he believed were not accurately portrayed in the London newspapers. Mass Observation participants wrote diary entries, completed questionnaires, and provided artifacts over a period of several years. Some participants contributed longer than others, including the most prolific diarist Nella Last. (I'm currently reading Nella Last's Peace, so look for that review in the near future.)

Our Longest Days aims to show the thoughts of the average British citizen during WWII, but it's important to note, as Sandra Koa Wing does in the introduction, that Mass Observation writers were not a representative sample. While they came from different backgrounds and regions of England, they mainly were middle-class, educated, and more left than right with regard to their political beliefs. They also knew their diary entries were being read, which likely played a role in what they wrote and how they wrote it.

The book is divided by year, beginning with a passage letting readers know what was happening on the various war fronts at the time, and passages from each month of the year are included. The first diary entries are dated Sept. 3, 1939, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany, and the last entry is dated Sept. 2, 1945. Each diarist is given an introduction of a few words, indicating their age at the time of their first entry, their location, and their occupation.

Our Longest Days was a bit dry at times, but readers must remember that the book is non-fiction, and these weren't professional writers. I think the book does a great job of illustrating the frustrations and fears associated with bombing raids and possible invasion by the Germans, the every day struggles associated with rationing, and the impact of the war on holiday gift-giving, dating, and work. One might think it was easy for people to give up things in favor of the war effort, and while several of the diarists were in the military, many were ordinary folk not on the front. They were expected to go about their daily routines as before and were constantly hit with challenges associated with meal preparation, public transit, etc. It was bound to take a toll on them.

Here are some passages that stood out to me while I was reading Our Longest Days:

Dec. 27, 1939: About five minutes later we heard more aeroplanes and Jenny rushed out and said she saw three Spitfires chasing over after the other aeroplane going very fast. A few minutes later the first plane went dashing back and the three others went over again, and Mother and Jenny rushed out in the garden and then rushed back declaring they could hear gunfire. The dog barked and jumped about and I was still eating my dinner and refused to get up and Mother announced that if there was anything to be seen she wasn't going to miss it. She said we might as well be killed while we were excited as anytime. (Muriel Green, 18-year-old garage assistant, Snettisham, Norfolk; page 21)

Sept. 3, 1941: Two years ago, we are reminded by press and BBC, war was declared. For two years I have been lucky, living so happily here. But the time is coming when I shall have to make sacrifices, like everyone else. There seems no hope of the war ending for years. The future appears dreary and incalculable. I cannot expect anyone to understand what it will mean to me to give up my indolent cottage life. The problem of what to do with the cats, for instance, seems appalling. They have become individuals whom I love, who love and trust me. If the worst happens and I am pushed into uniform (don't WANT to be pushed into uniform), no one will want to feed and care for three cats for me. (Maggie Joy Blunt, 30-year-old architectural writer, Slough; pages 94-95)

Aug. 8, 1945: I wonder whether the discovery of the atomic bomb has meant the end of civilisation. It is appalling to think that it might be so, that power has been discovered that if leased to a set of lunatics could end all our forefathers had built up. It is a terrifying thought because human nature has brought previous wars. They don't just happen by natural means, but are brought on by men and if they have brought on others unless human nature changes rapidly there might be fools who would bring another about, even if it would end everything. On the other hand, this new devastating weapon might have the reaction of keeping down war if it is controlled by men of peace. Another war would be too abominable for even the vilest of men to contemplate. (Muriel Green; page 263)
Because I am not familiar with all the details of the war, I was happy to see the book included footnotes, and I flipped back and forth while reading so I wouldn't miss anything. There were some references to money and political elections that went over my head, as I'm not well versed in 1940s British currency and politics, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book.

I felt like I got to know the diarists over the course of the book, especially those who wrote for much of the war. My only complaint is not the fault of the editors. I was hoping to find out what happened to the diarists after the war, but I later learned that some of the diaries were incomplete, little was known about the individual diarists, and in most cases, their names were changed. I was disappointed, but I understand that things are bound to get lost over a period of more than six decades.

Our Longest Days is a history of WWII from the point of view of the average Joe, and I highly recommend it for readers who, like me, are drawn to books about the war. I also think it's worth a try for those looking for something a little more interesting than a textbook or general overview of the war.

Our Longest Days is the 17th book I've completed for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Our Longest Days from Meryl Zegarek Public Relations Inc. for review purposes.

15 comments:

Serena said...

This book sounds interesting, but I don't think I could read it all in one sitting. I would have to read bits and pieces.

bermudaonion said...

Wow - you're really working on that challenge! The book sounds really interesting!

Dar said...

This sounds really interesting Anna. You're doing so well with the challenge. I'm completely hopeless.

Meghan said...

I think you commented on my own review of this book a long way back. So you'll know I really enjoyed it and I'm glad you did too! I was also disappointed to discover the diarists' history was not disclosed but I can understand why.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the picture on the cover. I remember when women all wore those wrap around turban things on their heads. Amazing progress on the challenge!

Jeane said...

I don't usually read books about the War, but I think I would appreciate one told from everyday people's point of view- what someone like me would have gone through- so this looks like a really good read.

Alyce said...

This looks like a completely fascinating book. I love diaries and journals, and I've added this one to my list.

Sandy Nawrot said...

17? Sheesh. I was feeling good about hitting my goal of 10! This story reminds me alot of the move Hope and Glory. The movie is fictional, but is about the every day British citizen and the effects of the war on them, through the eyes of a child. At the end, the kid's school gets blown up, and the kids go nuts. Figures!

Booklogged said...

An interesting idea and a fresh take. I'm going to watch for this. Thanks Anna.

Care said...

I love when personal history collides with world history - which it sounds like is what this book is about.

teabird said...

Diaries can be the best window into an era - all of the Holocaust diaries show that, all too well. I'd be disappointed, too, if the book didn't have follow-ups on the diarists!

Diane said...

This book sounds pretty amazing. Thanks for profiling this book.

Bookfool said...

I love the cover of that book!

Marie said...

sounds like a fascinating book. even if the names are changed you can learn so much from personal diaries like that.

Anna said...

Thanks everyone! I do hope you all get a chance to check out this gem of a book. I'm happy to add it to my WWII collection.