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.