Home Front Girl:
A Diary of Love, Literature,
and Growing Up in Wartime America
by Joan Wehlen Morrison
Wartime diaries written by young girls are something of a rarity, so it is more than likely that Joan Wehlen Morrison’s engaging Home Front Girl will be compared to such titles as Anne Frank’s World War II classic Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata Filipovic’s more recent entry Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo. Such comparisons are apt, so long as they don’t detract from the unique voice captured in Wehlen’s work.
Pulled from journal entries and school notebooks, Home Front Girl reveals the daily goings-on, thoughts, and feelings of young Joan Wehlen. Written between 1937 and 1943, the book captures Wehlen between the ages of fourteen and twenty while a student, first at Greeley, then at Lakeview, and finally at the University of Chicago Junior College (what today is the Lab School) in Hyde Park. Readers who follow her journey watch her grow and mature as she does all the things young girls do at that age—go to school and do her homework, gossip with friends, go on dates, argue with her parents—as well as things that today’s teens couldn’t possibly imagine: knit sweaters and scarves for soldiers, collect Red Cross donations, and say goodbye to friends heading off to war.
Wehlen and her family lived in Chicago, moving several times from the North Side to the South Side, and Home Front Girl is full of local color. Wehlen visits the Art Institute and the Field Museum, she travels by L and bus, she takes trips with friends to Palos Park and Calumet City. She spends her summers at camp in Michigan. She goes to the movies with her father, plays bridge with her friends, and spends a lot of her time reading classic literature. In fact, one is struck by how well read such a young girl is. Not many teenage girls today reading—much less quoting—Homer, Keats, Yeats, Stevenson, or Ibsen.
A bright, curious, thoughtful girl, Wehlen’s writings reveal a young woman full of hope and optimism, even though she can see that the world is turning toward darkness. In fact, Wehlen is at times more prescient than one might expect of someone so young, as, for example, when she writes in October 1940—more than a year before the United States would enter World War II—“Born at the end of one disastrous war and bred between two wars with always the foreknowledge of this war that is come upon us as we reach adulthood.” Wehlen here has managed to capture the feeling of many who lived during the interwar years, remarking with deep thoughtfulness on what the coming war would mean for her generation.
She is again astute when, in March 1939—six months before Germany would invade Poland—she writes “What else could Germany have had after [World War I] except that a dictator would spring up—if not Hitler, another.” Wehlen was only sixteen years old when she wrote those words.
Home Front Girl is full of such insightful commentary, surprising for one so young and without the benefit of hindsight. Such incision is accompanied by entries that are touching, sensitive, evocative, and, at times, even lyrical.
Of course, not every diary entry is heavy with meaning or historical importance. Many are what one would expect from a teenage girl—chatter about classmates, makeup, and movies and ruminations over boys, dates, and kisses.
But even these more mundane entries tell a story, revealing a day at a time the life of a girl growing up in the midst of the interwar period, thick in the Great Depression. Wehlen tackles such issues as lend–lease, the Fifth Column, pacifism, and isolationism. She discusses Hitler, Mussolini, FDR, and Churchill (to whom she refers as “Pigface”). And she reveals her thoughts about contemporary celebrities such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Norma Shearer.
Though written for a young adult audience, the book is by no means a children’s book. Readers of all ages will find young Joan Wehlen engaging and amusing. In fact, older readers may get more out of the book, especially when it comes to some of the contemporary references. For instance, a number of footnotes mention movies and actors of the time, most of which will be wholly unfamiliar to today’s young readers. (Not all cultural references get this treatment, however. Why some books and movies are explained in footnotes and others are not is a mystery.)
Home Front Girl is rich in detail. It is witty and bright and thoughtful and insightful. With as many as 1,200 World War II veterans dying every day, the publication of Wehlen’s diary is important. It is a remarkable document, one that should be treasured for the contemporary, first-hand glimpse it offers of a world that soon will be lost to those living among us.
November 2012, Chicago Review Press/IPG
$19.95, hardcover, 252 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen