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September 1, 1939: 75th Anniversary of the Start of World War II

September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, conventionally has been called the day World War II began.  Of course, the roots of the war lie much deeper and further back, as Joan’s diary illustrates.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the start of the war, today’s post looks at an unusual topic, but one which Joan uses to ground a poem commemorating the start of World War II.

Catalpa Trees and Out of Fashion Vegetation

I had never even heard of a catalpa tree before I read my mother’s diaries from the period before and during World War II. Today this species is making headlines.  A recent article, “You’re Planting That Old Thing?”, extols old vegetative species, while pointing out their deficiencies and drawbacks.

First, for those who, like me, are new to the glories of catalpa trees, here’s a photo.

Catalpa Tree.

Catalpa Tree.

And do view this slideshow of “old-fashioned” plants.

There is even a (“non-existent”) Catalpa Tree Appreciation Society.

The author of the Times article, Michael Tortorello, writes that “Almost no one appreciates the catalpa tree, and few gardeners have planted one since the financial crisis. The one in the 1930s.”  Exactly when my mother was writing about catalpas.  Two of the 19th-century catalpa enthusiasts came from the midwest:  Ohio and Illinois where Joan grew up.

Catalpa came out of fashion — even though it was beautiful and the wood was vital for railroad ties — because it could be messy with its seedpods.

Catalpa in bloom

Catalpa in bloom

Perhaps what we need now is an analysis of the catalpa in literature and war. For Joan, it was a symbolic tree, linked irrevocably with the start of World War II.

In Memory – August 31, 1939 [Age 16]


I remember standing in the crooked shadow of the Catalpa tree

The August-September night it started.

White moon on the grass and moon mist over the fields.

Even then. It was so still.

The crickets sang farewell to summer.

And the smell of a golden reaping

Was rich in the air.

Even then. While we were so still

Somewhere the guns were beginning to boom

And another crop was being harvested.


Diary Museum: “Paper voices always make a sound”

Joan’s diaries add to history by giving a personal point of view at a time of political upheaval. Granted, some of her insights are light-hearted.  Here’s her self-reflection at age 14.

Monday, May 3, 1937

Got my hair set today. In my opinion, if I had hollower cheeks, I’d be a perfect double for Garbo.

Garbo in Inspiration (1931)

Garbo in Inspiration (1931)

As a fellow Swede (well, half-Swede–Joan’s father had come from Sweden in 1913), Joan certainly paid attention to the most famous Swedish actress in Hollywood!

But Joan also had profound insights that defy her young age.  Here she is at age 16, writing comments ranging from fashion to woes with her mom to politics.

Easter Day, April 9, 1939

High—! Well, I went to 11:00 service [in church] with George Hodge this morning. Actually was on time. Wore my new tweed swagger coat and powder blue hat.

"Me, Just gorgeous of course," she writes sarcastically.

“Me, just gorgeous of course,” she writes sarcastically.


This afternoon spent at home . . . Mom and I in our separate cells . . . I was lucky, I had the living room with the radio. Heard “Träumerai.” Such haunting music, but I can’t even hum the tune now.

Well, it seems my prophecy about Easter 1939 [that the war would begin] is wrong but perhaps the world is to go to pieces today. Well, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.”

Father Carr in his sermon lambasted Hitler and Mussolini. It’s easy to accuse them now, but he wouldn’t accuse the greedy statesmen who laid the foundations for the next war at Versailles.

The importance of diaries in history has been fully acknowledged at the National Diary Archive Foundation in Pieve Santo Stefano, the so-called “City of Diaries,” in Italy.

Diaries from The Archives of Pieve Santo Stefano

Diaries from The Archives
of Pieve Santo Stefano

As Elizabetta Povoledo writes in her New York Times article, the founder, Saverio “’Tutino believed that everyone is one of many, and together we become history.'” As Loretta Veri, “the archive’s former director who now raises funds to support it,” says, Tutino “’used to say that we are privileged to hear the rustle of others, that paper voices always made a sound.’”

Povoledo writes that artists and playwrights have been inspired by “the 39 scraps of paper scribbled in a Rome jail by 18-year-old Orlando Orlandi Posti during the last six weeks of his life. Arrested on Feb. 3, 1944, for warning his friends about an impending roundup by German soldiers, Mr. Orlandi Posti managed to smuggle his thoughts — mostly expressing his devotion to a girlfriend — out of prison, rolled up in the collar of shirts destined for the laundry. He became one of the 335 Italians who died on March 24, 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in reprisal for the killing of 33 German policemen by Italian partisans.”


Entry to caves in the Fosse Ardeatine Monument. From

Entry to caves in the Fosse Ardeatine Monument. From

As the Archive’s director, Natalia Cangi, says, “‘Diaries go on to have other lives.'”

Natalia Cangi, the director of the National Diary Archive Foundation. More than 7,000 memoirs line the archive’s shelves. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times.  From

Natalia Cangi, the director of the National Diary Archive Foundation. More than 7,000 memoirs line the archive’s shelves. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times. From

Joan would never have expected people to read her teenaged diaries, though she does welcome that option.  As she writes at age 19,

Tuesday, January 20, 1942

Heard Stephen Vincent Benét[1] tonight on “Poetry and History.” He was remarkable. Clear yet forceful. . . . He appears to think we can come out of the war thumbs up. . . .

Mr. Benét was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual—not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older—are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of social archeologist pawing over my relics.

Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent Benét

[1] A Pulitzer Prize–winning author.


Home Front Girl: Kindle Daily Deal!

Home Front Girl is the non-fiction Kindle Daily Deal, selling for $2.99 for today, August 12th, only.  Please go here to see how you can buy it and let your friends know!

Home Front Girl

Between brothers

Between brothers


More from Joan’s UK diary-keeping “twin.”

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:

Jim’s requests for schoolgirl photos go unnoticed or at least unremarked upon by Norah and they settle into a fun and flirtatious correspondence through the summer of 1941. For now, there are no more worrying letters, just the complicating factor that is Danny, Jim’s younger brother, who is now on the scene.

Remember it is Jim who first puts Norah and Danny in touch. A trainee officer in the RAF, Danny is on a course at Loughborough College, the Leicestershire town where Norah has just finished her schooling. Jim arranges their first meeting for the 5th July, but Danny fails to turn up. The following week he sends Norah a ‘beautiful letter’, informing her that he is going to a RAF base in Wiltshire. He writes again from there, another grand letter, to say he is going home for seven days (‘on a motorbike’, Norah adds).  30th July: Went to Forester’s Sale. Ma bought coal bucket etc. Received letter…

View original 1,000 more words

The extraordinary adventures of ordinary girls: blog relaunch

The extraordinary adventures of ordinary girls: blog relaunch


Here is more about Norah, Joan’s English “twin”–whose diary has recently been found. It provides insight into World War II on the home front–and we hear about the adventures of “dearest dimples”…..

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:

After a difficult few months with very little time in which to write, I now have space ahead of me in which Norah’s story can unfold at the pace it requires.

cropped-norah-19421.jpgWe are now well-acquainted with our feisty schoolgirl heroine. We have seen her at home – a loving daughter, a squabbling sister, living from the summer of 1938 in a brand new council house in a village in the English East Midlands. We have met most of her family: her gentle mother Milly, bellicose father Tom, her married sister Helen and little niece Jeannie, and older brothers Birdy and Frank.

From one of her contemporaries, we have learned about her life as a scholarship girl at Loughborough High School and have witnessed a whole lot of schoolgirl giddyness in her diaries. We have noted her interests: reading novels and Picturegoer magazine, walking, blackberrying and mushrooming in the nearby…

View original 399 more words

Remembrance of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

This past week we have read a lot about the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  The coverage on the BBC is well worth visiting.

Commemorative flights.

Commemorative flights.

On June 6, 1944, Allied troops began the invasion of continental Europe on the beaches of Normandy.

British veteran at a British cemetery.

British veteran at a British cemetery.

So many killed.

6 years before D-Day, Joan wrote about the prospect of war and the fate of so many boys she knew.  Here is her diary entry from when she was only 15 years old.

Sunday, February 13, 1938

. . . The United States (mine), England and France—the three great democracies as the paper glaringly puts it—sent a note to Japan last week demanding that she cut down on her navies—and yesterday the note came back with an answer—“Go to it—let’s have a naval race”—or to the point. And then Thursday night they had a program on the radio discussing the next war in confident tones. Somehow everything seems to point to 1940 as the turning point—as the time when the climax is reached. Everyone seems sure that there will be a war soon. I was talking to a boy in school Friday about war and death. He seemed sure that there’d be another war (another, oh!) and he said he’d probably be killed in it. All the boys I know will be old enough to die in a war in 1940. When I said, “And afterwards—?”, he said, “Well, if there’s anything to see—afterwards—I’ll see it, and if not, well, I won’t know about it.” Which is, after all, the only thing to say. But think 1940—death—war—oh, why must it be?

The boys she knew did enter the war. Some returned.

Operation Overlord.

Operation Overlord, now known as D-Day.

But many boys didn’t come back, caught up in battles in the Atlantic, the Pacific, on islands, on the European and North African continents.

Joan wrote a poem when she 18, before the U.S. was even officially at war.  She imagines the death of someone she knew.  The anguish is as fresh now as it was then.

May 6 – 1941

            On reading the papers                                  

                 I never thought that you could die

                 I always thought you were


                 Even in war, I pictured you

                 Eating bread and cheese in a mud hole

                 And talking about girls and Plato

                 With one of the friends you always seemed to find.

                 I never took war seriously for you;

                 You never took anything seriously.

                 Sometimes I fancied you drinking beer

                 And singing in some canteen; you had a loud voice

                 And always smiling with the world, or laughing at it.

                 I don’t know; I never thought you’d die.

                 You were the kind to take so much the easy way.

                 I could see you getting acquainted with 20 pretty girls

                 In 20 tiny provinces.

                 And though I sent you some badly knitted socks

                 And one scarf I spent months on (I’m sure

                 You gave them all away), I didn’t think much of you

                 While you were gone. But now today

                 Reading the papers, I see you are dead

                 And suddenly I realize more than history in war.

                 I know this one is real.

Memorial Day and Home Fronts: World War II and Vietnam

Knowing what happens on the home front is important in any war.  How can we justly and accurately assess the historical past during wartime without thinking about the situation on the home front?

My dear friend, Pamela Neville-Sington, pointed out something I’d never considered before.  “Your mom recorded the history of two home fronts:  World War II with Home Front Girl and Vietnam.”

I hadn’t realized it before, but how true!

In the 1980s, my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, and brother, Robert “Bob” Kirby Morrison, wrote an oral history together:  From Camelot to Kent State:  The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Oxford University Press, Updated edition, 2001).


In that book, they record the stories of Civil Rights activists, Vietnam vets, women active in the women’s movement, campus activists, and people in the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], Weathermen, and Black Panthers.  Additionally, there is an entire section entitled, “The War at Home.”  As they write in their foreward, the book is an attempt “to give some idea of what it was like to be living then, to add a human dimension to the black headlines and shocking scenes of those years.”

I think that’s what Home Front Girl shows too:  for the young Joan, the home front did not start on December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  It already began after World War I, the so-called “Great War,” and never let up until a “hot war” with bullets being shot recommenced.


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