How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War by Norman Longmate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One can find many books on the history of World War II, from the perspective of each country involved, to the political undertones, to the experiences of officers and footsoldiers. This book is unique, written in 1970, in a sweeping attempt to explain how the war in England was won on the homefront.
This book was somewhat personal for me, in that some of the artifacts in it were common items from my childhood: we would go through large shoeboxes of pictures and ephemera, and at one point, we found ration coupon books and played "war shops." Somehow as children of the 1970s, the story had come down to us about our English relatives' hardship in finding the most basic of foods and clothing as the war dragged on for six long years; an emigrant cousin or two brought her ration books with her "just in case," and they stayed in a cabinet for decades until we brought them out.
Reading about how English ingenuity used garden hose and rope to replace failed bicycle tires, any textiles at all to replace worn clothing, and hundreds of other make-do efforts, made me appreciate the civilian sacrifice all the more. The United States is currently fighting on several fronts, but civilians have been asked to give up nothing, and we are not particularly aware of the realities of these wars. The English fought hunger and deprivation at home to spare more for their sons and husbands on the front lines, with very little complaining and a chin-up attitude I still find in my family today.
At over 700 pages, Longmate covered nearly all possible aspects of home life: kitchen, cooking, clothing, shopping, movies, popular music, the influx of other Allied troops, books, the media, school, the evacuation of children from dense cities, family relations, and far more. Because it was written just a few decades after it happened, he interviewed women and former children who had these experiences, and thus includes firsthand accounts that are no longer possible, so as a historical document this is rich with information.
Much exists about this war, but reading about how it permeated every aspect of civilian life allows a 21st century reader to truly understand how it was the cultural touchpoint of a generation. It is well worth the time to read through it and reflect.
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