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Author Archives: Susan Morrison

Home Front Girl in New Edition: Available in Paperback

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

I’m delighted to announce that Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America has just been released as a paperback. My mother would be thrilled to know how many people have been touched by–and learned from–her diary entries as a teenager from 1937-43. As a historian herself, Joan was committed to recording the voices of those who made history. Not the politicians or generals, but everyday folks like herself. Kirkus called it “better than fiction.” Joan’s true story spoken from the heart conjures up a world of delicate, touching and–often–humorous reflection on what it means to be human.

Find out details for ordering my mom’s book here.

 

Star Blogger!

I’m so delighted that Story Circle Network chose me as this month’s “Star Blogger.” I’m deeply grateful to this organization–the wonderful and inspiring writers in it have offered support, concrete suggestions, and amazing energy. In fact, it was at my first Story Circle Network Conference, called Stories from the Heart that I went to a talk on starting a blog. I remember the speaker asked us to brainstorm about what topic you could imagine writing many posts about. That was in 2012, before Home Front Girl had been accepted for publication by Chicago Review Press. Little did I know that I would be blogging about my mom, her diary from 1937-1943, and World War II. I’ve been doing it for over 5 years with 137 posts (this makes 138!). Since then I’ve begun two other blogs, one for my novel Grendel’s Mother and issues dealing with Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon society and the other for my book on medieval women.

It all started with Story Circle–and now they have honored me with this designation. Many thanks to my Story Circle sisters!

A Tribute to the Real Rosie the Riveter

A 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley that was the likely inspiration for the Rosie the Riveter poster. Credit Getty Images. From The New York Times article

My mother, Joan, was no Rosie the Riveter, though she did work for two weeks one summer as a can inspector. As she writes in her trademark dry way on June 20, 1941 at age 18, “Got first paycheck yesterday. 44¢—for six hours and deducted for my uniform. 2¢ on my Social Security. My old age is assured.”

The real Rosie the Riveter, Naomi Parker Fraley, died this week. A New York Times article explores the detective work undertaken by James J. Kimble at Seton Hall University to uncover who really inspired that famous poster depicting a woman with that iconic headscarf with the words “We Can Do It!”

Both the complicated detective work and the life of Ms. Fraley are well worth examining here.

My mother describes her factory work with her characteristic humor.

Friday, June 13, 1941

Hullo—Friday the 13th—Fine time to start writing in here…School’s out as you may have guessed—a surprise! I’m working. Burry Biscuit Co. Factory girl after a year of college—father almost died laughing and forbade me to go but I went anyhow.. . . . I’m gonna get paid $6 a week. He almost died again. Of course momma doesn’t disapprove—she wouldn’t! It’s only for two weeks though—till I go to camp, so it’s really nothing to get excited about. 33¢ an hour.

I worked today already. Everyone was so nice yesterday when I went to look for the job . . . Helpful young men all over and old ones pointing out the way and all . . . When I got to this place a young fellow out back said I looked lost and escorted me in to the office. Today I ran into him again and he had to show me where the lunchroom was. He was standing among a whole lot of flour sacks. I thought he was an office boy! He came around later this afternoon—and, lo and behold, he isn’t only the Big Boss, but he owns the factory. Oh joy, Joan, you’re doing fine!

Anyhow, it wasn’t bad today. It sure wasn’t intellectual and I got the hang of searing the boxes (and not my hands) in about half an hour and had the rest of the morning to think. Once I seared my hands and forgot to breathe. I’d been searing my hands all the time though, so it didn’t really mean a thing. It’s not bad at all, really—I didn’t like packing crackers so much though, ’cause you’re in too much of a hurry, but you get used to it, I guess.

It’s fun talking to all the girls and everything—I feel like Susan Lenox[1] or something—and where is it? Clearing, Illinois! Miles out and cows all around. What I like best is the walk over the dirt road from the streetcar. Green grass all around and daisies springing up and cows—positively cows. It’s quite delightful: Well—it’s only two  weeks to go, so why get excited?

Monday, June 16, 1941

Well—work today. Joan, the little factory girl. Only I wasn’t today—Inspector Wehlen, call me. I inspected millions of army ration cans—for the USA. Defensive work. Caught myself humming the “Star-Spangled Banner” and reflected it was the same as making munitions. It is too, you know. Boss came over and worked with me for a while. We two alone all at the end of the belt. Only trouble was, I couldn’t hear a word he was saying.

It’s funny. It’s rather mindless work there you know—as indeed I remarked to the boss. So as I get rather bored, I recite to myself or sing . . . Have gone through Housman[3]—Shakespeare—all the speeches from Julius Caesar and everything I like . . . the sonnets . . . “No longer mourn for me when I am dead.”[4] It’s really not bad. I fear in two weeks I may run out though—my repertory is not so large. The machinists there may have a strike.

Wednesday, June 18, 1941

Work goes on. Back on the army order today . . . inspecting. They sent for me too. Boss fixed up a comfy corner for me and turned on the fan and brought me sugar cubes. . . . Not very sympathetic as to my broken nail. Nice though: I can’t get over the feeling I’m there studying the girls—and not really proletariat. It’s quite irritating. I feel in league with the boss. My hands are all cut.

Friday, June 20, 1941

Hello. Time’s a-passing. Still at the factory. Was going to quit today, but we get time and a half, 50¢ an hour for tomorrow. So am staying on. Passed 67,438 cans of army rations today. Uncle Sam doesn’t know what I’m doing for him. Almost passed out today. Terribly hot. Ate salt tablet. . . .

Got first paycheck yesterday. 44¢—for six hours and deducted for my uniform. 2¢ on my Social Security. My old age is assured. Found a note from one of the girls in a can . . . I let it go. It was harmless and who knows when it may be found. In war, in blood, in pain. . . . Have begun singing the “La Marseillaise” instead of “Star-Spangled Banner” as I work. You can see how I’ve changed. Am dead tired. Oh my back!

. . . This is practically making munitions like I always said I’d probably end up. . . . The cookies are hard enuf. I see the cans in my dreams passing before me in shining rows, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. . . .

Friday, June 27, 1941

My paycheck, incidentally, was $16.77. Sound pretty good, huh? I wanted to frame it. 17¢ off on my Social Security. That makes me feel better. Who knows how I’ll be when I’m sixty.

 

[1] A Greta Garbo film from 1931; the heroine becomes a woman of easy virtue. There is also a call slip from the university library tucked into Joan’s Graded German Reader from October 1940 for the book Susan Lenox by David Phillips.

[2] Professor John R. Davey, who taught humanities for many years.

[3] A. E. Housman was Joan’s favorite poet.

[4] From Sonnet 71.

[5] A ship sunk by a German U-boat in May 1941 after the Germans evacuated it of crew and passengers.

[6] Her Swedish uncle. Joan’s paternal grandmother and all of the family on Joan’s father’s side (except for her father and one uncle) stayed in Sweden.

 

Auld Lang Syne from January 1, 1938

New Year’s Eve parties can be tough on the toes, even in 1939

When my mother Joan had just turned 16, she wrote a poem on December 31, 1938. It purveys the poignant longing of a teenage girl, yearning for the past and fearful of a future beset by rumblings of war.

Lovely party!

New Year’s Eve 1938          

New Year Moment

Time, time, gather up your skirts for a moment

But do not depart.

Linger a while; I would hold this moment

Always in my heart.

Time, time – I want to steal this moment

Put it in an archive

Far within my heart.  Then you may go out,

Leaving one past, and live.

The Blackhawk Restaurant was in Chicago, thriving just when Joan lived there

A Christmas and New Year’s card sent in Chicago a week before my mother wrote her poem

Christmas Greetings from 1932

Children Wait for Santa, Snack, Stockings, by Fern Bisel Peat, 1932

My mother, Joan, wrote this Christmas poem when she had just turned 10.  Merry Christmas from 1932!

Coming through the blue, blue sky,

Swiftly as a bird can fly,

Reindeer pulling o’er the snow,

Children seeing Santa go.

Santa Claus comes through the sky,

Swiftly as a bird can fly,

Reindeer pulling him o’er the snow,

O’er the housetop Santa will go.

 

 

Inclusion Keeps Us Safe

Read this wonderful article by Liza Mundy about female code-breakers during WWII. Inclusion can keep us safe.

Travis Heights Art Trail 2017

Come to the Travis Heights Arts Trail, Saturday November 4, 2017


Part of the Travis Heights Arts Trail includes an Author Showcase. I’ll be reading on Saturday, November 4, 2017, from 11 a.m. to noon about historic and legendary Germanic women. As you listen to local authors read from their books at this Literary event at the beautiful Fairview Inn at 1304 Newning, Austin, TX, stop by the Austin Book Arts Center display, in the hotel dining room. You can make a book, or print a Christmas card. Both Days – Noon and 3pm.

Here is a map of the events in the neighborhood.


Happy Halloween!

My mother, Joan, was a writer starting at an early age. Though her prose diaries from her teenage years have been published, she also wrote poetry. In the meantime, enjoy this little poem from when she was 10 on Halloween, 1933. She might have been a poor kid in Chicago, but her imagination was rich.

Halloween

Dance Jack-O’Lantern

Dance Jack-O’Lantern

Wander at will!

Witches are meeting

Hobgoblins greeting

High on the hill!

Moonbeams flicker

Out on the green.

Fairies are seen,

Halloween.

Candles are gleaming

Minds are dreaming

Fortunes foretell.

Magic is making

Ghosts are awaking

Bound by a spell.

And now for a little treat (or trick?) from 1933: Boop-boopdy-doo!

Memorial Day in 1938

My mom, Joan, wrote every year about Memorial Day in her diaries from the 1930s and 1940s. World War I was always fresh in her mind, though it was a conflagration finished well before her birth. Here is a diary entry from when she was 17 years old, reflecting on poetry, war, the suffering of animals in zoos, and even one of my favorite medieval poets: Langland.

“Me, turning red faced from the class!”

Sunday May 30, 1938

…Well, Thursday (Thor’s Day!) I was very embarrassed.  Mrs. Hellman, my English teacher, read my poem “City” aloud to class—you know, after she found out I had won Honorable Mention in Scholastic, but I never thought that she’d read it to the class!  Was my face red.  She tried to make me read it but I broke down and she had too.

…A teacher accused me and the girl next to me of ditching a study to smoke—me! —with my face!  Of course, I wasn’t though—it was all a mistake.  In the midst of bawling me out, the teacher stopped and said, “You’re the girl who wrote the poetry for Scholastic, aren’t you?”  How did she find out?  I thought only fools read that (though that includes her!).

“Me smoking!”

…. Friday night Mom and I went to Lake View to see Il Trovatore—given by American Opera Company.  Mom went to sleep during it and I had to hold my eyelids up!  Are we cultural!

Mom and I went downtown and I got me a new peasant –dusty pink – dress.  I look like the “Song of the Lark”[1] or something.  It’s a dirndl and awfully cute.

“Song of the Lark” by Jules Breton

B.B.B.B. [Beautiful Blue-eyed Boy in Biology Class] didn’t come Saturday as I told him not to.  Vera got walked out on by a boy again.  She’s going to start using Lifebuoy [Soap].

…. Today—got up at 12:15.  It’s Memorial Day.  Read New Poetry and Modern Poetry books—Went to park to read the borrowed one in my peasant dress — laid my annual sprig of white hawthorn by the soldier in the park and whispered, “I remembered” to him.  There was no new wreath for him, save mine.

Sat by the pool for a while and read.  There was a big St. Bernard dog near me and three fair-haired children in sailor coats—James Barrie in Kensington Gardens.  Went on to zoo.  The eagles look so misplaced in the ugly dark cage.  What right have they to keep another living thing from the sun?  And the baby lion (1½ years) who was born there.  He looks like a strong man in a shop.  Such a beautiful fierce young lion to never have felt the touch of Earth at his feet.  Always inside.  No moon, no sun, no grass.  And for a young lion he is so still.  He just sits and stares over our heads at things he can’t see.  The other lions seem to see the jungles when they look like that, but he has nothing to see.  Nothing at all…. He has a great chin as of one who has suffered and tragic golden eyes.  I wish I could give him a piece of the jungle.  Oh, it’s all so cruel!  And here are people who have been likewise cheated….

In this book of poetry there’s an introduction to English verse—I like this Old English[2] one:

In a somer seson

When softe was the sonne

I shoop me into shroudes

As I a sheep were

In habite as a heremite

Unholy of werkes

Wente wide in this world

Wondres to here.

I sort of like the serious, old sound of it—and yet not old.  Langland is his name.

[1] Painting by Jules Breton.

[2] William Langland’s Piers Plowman is actually written in Middle English.

That Complicated German Language

#ObamaBerlin President Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate reminds me of my deep love of Germany and the German language. I’m excited to go back to Berlin–where I lived 1988-90– in about a week. Recently I had the great delight to read again at Malvern Books, the terrific local bookstore in Austin, TX, in a German-themed evening.

Here’s a video of me reading from various books.

Malvern Books really curates their offerings so that every book feels handcrafted — chosen for a discerning crowd. The store asked me out of the blue to help Rebecca Schuman launch her new memoir, Schadenfreude, about her experiences in Germany and with the German language. I immediately said yes. I have been laying the groundwork for writing my own memoir about my experiences teaching in East Germany in the 1980s, so this seemed serendipitous.

At Malvern Books, April 14, 2017. Some of my books alongside Rebecca’s.

As the warm-up act to Rebecca’s funny and engaging reading, I decided to set the stage on women and Germany. Starting with legendary Germanic women, I read two passages from my novel about Grendel’s Mother.  Then I turned to historic German women and read from my book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, recently translated into German. I shared highlights from the lives of the first known woman dramatist, Hrotsvit von Gandersheim, and that of the medieval superstar, Hildegard von Bingen.

At Malvern Books, April 14, 2017

Rapidly moving through history, I shared two more books. The last, to prepare for Rebecca’s material set in the mid 1990s, came from a piece in my book on The Literature of Waste. Here I reflect on how my experiences in the former GDR make it impossible for me to choose in superstores with too much choice. I still cannot go into Costco.

I also shared scenes from Home Front Girl, focusing on just a few of the many moments where my mother Joan ponders Germany and the German language. These feature some of my favorite bits in her diary. Here are a couple of them, ranging from the lyrical to the sarcastic.

Monday, September 19, 1938
. . . Well, world news goeth on too . . . see this—“Allies (Britain and France) give in to Germany—leave Czechoslovakia flat!” Czechoslovakia says she’ll fight and Germany says it will be a “real” War. I wonder what Hitler said to Chamberlain that made Britain side step so neatly. [Joan pasted into her diary this newspaper clipping depicting Chamberlain and Hitler at the famous appeasement talks about Czechoslovakia.

Age 17 at the University of Chicago German class Christmas Party; [Written between Wednesday, December 11, and Friday, December 14, 1940]

. . . Went to German Christmas party last night—Santa Claus, a pretty tree, . . . marzipan that I like, etc. Betty came too. . . . They sang German Christmas carols, “O Tannenbaum.” . . . We joked about it sounding like a Bund[1] meeting and Betty wanted to get up and shout, “We’re all Americans!” But we mustn’t even pretend to have that kind of patriotism. God, keep us wise and cool. . . .

Then they sang—a male quartet—old songs in the faintly meaningful language (I can understand about one quarter) . . . and I leaned back dreamily. . . . I like to hear their strong male voices—deep and proud—singing the good songs. Schubert—“Silent Night” . . . the tree brings out the Nordic, the Scandinavian, in me and I think of my ancestors. Betty whispers, “What an ugly language it is!” The world’s spinning outside, the moon is gleaming on the white snow. . . .  In here we are separate . . . warm—out of the world. Someone opens a window and a chilly blast sweeps in. . . .

Herr Jolles sees me and nods, smiling. . . . He makes an announcement and it is only afterwards I learn he has said the punch is spilled. My German is none too good. But the almond paste cookies are. I eat a great many.

[1] An American Nazi organization.

Christmas Day, 1939. Chicago downtown, a year before Joan’s entry cited here.

On Christmas Day, 1940, two weeks later, she writes,

I passed suddenly the Cunard[1] window. . . . An exhibit for the BWR[2]—pictures of little children in Britain—homes bombed—helmets that could be knitted for the RAF—a noble purpose—but it’s making war in our hearts. . . . The little German children are bombed and hungry too. . . . And all the sudden, in an emotional intensity, I thought, “This may be the last Christmas we shall have” . . . I should be wise and know the world will never end. . . . An unofficial truce played over Christmas in Europe today—Hitler said, “German fliers will not fly on Christmas if British flyers will not.” And they did not. . . . And so a white, bloodless Christmas there and the sky is weeping here. . . .

[1] A British shipping company.

[2] British War Relief.

Though her humor remains undaunted, Joan’s relationship to the German was vexed. At age 18, February 12, 1941, she writes,

Flunked my German test—F. . . . That’s bad, you know. Hitler would be disappointed. He’d better put off the invasion for a while. . . .

And here is Rebecca Schuman reading at Malvern Books. What a fun evening!

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