Note: Just as the assassination of Pres. Kennedy (11/22/1963) is a defining moment of my generation (I was in the hospital giving birth to my first child) and 9/11/2001 is the defining moment of my grandson’s generation (He was born 9/11/1991, so he will never forget that day anyway!), Pearl Harbor Day (12/07/ 1941) is the day that lives in infamy in my mother’s generation.
Because I grew up in the aftermath of WWII, I remember the movies of that period, the constant talk about Pearl Harbor, and of course, the Holocaust. But I never really heard much about the women during this period, except for the famous icon Rosie the Riveter. (Click link to my visit to the Rosie the Riveter Museum in California earlier this year: http://wp.me/p82Ooe-4ZH.) Hopefully, these two books will enlighten you as they did me.
I am excited to review Emily Yellin’s wonderful book, Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During Word War II. The author is a cousin to one of the members of our Jewish congregation and lent to me by another member, or I may have never read it. Even though I am not a history buff, I could not put this book down. Every chapter revealed something new I did not know about the important work of women old enough to serve as volunteers or paid workers to take the place of the men sent overseas to fight the Axis countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan).
This book is more than a historical document for the author, because her mother Carol Lynn, who died in 1999, had left her important job as one of the few female editors at Reader’s Digest to join the Red Cross near the end of the war and travel to Saipan. Notes from her diary, pictures of her mom overseas, and other personal touches help make the book a living archive. The Epilogue, which includes some passages from a speech by her mother when the author was nine, the (adult ) author reveals how motivated and passionate she was to write this book. Yellin quotes a part of her mother’s speech in which she talks about how “the rigid classification of jobs according to gender I believe is on the way out…” Her mom was already a feminist without stating it so and this anecdote gave the author “the almost spooky sense that I might have been destined to write this book all along.” (p. 283)
In reading each chapter, the author’s passion is obvious, almost as though her mother is whispering in her Emily Yellin’s, giving her words of encouragement to show just how much women changed as they participated in the war effort. I believe that the fight for the right to vote was the start of the women’s movement, and the shift to women in traditional male roles during the war gave the movement the push it needed to propel the next generation of women into speaking up for their rights after Betty Friedan opened the floodgates with The Feminine Mystique.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the contents of Our Mothers’ War to learn more about women and war. There are 13 chapters, plus the Prologue and Epilogue, both of which are important personal bookends to the research that Emily Yellin brings to life in her book. Women from all walks of life worked for the war effort: entertainers as well as fictional characters; the women in the WACs, SPARs, Marines, and Wasps; Red Cross women; spies and propaganda workers, professional women (doctors, journalists, politicians); as well as African-American women, Japanese-American women, prostitutes (for the soldiers); anti-semitic mother’s groups; and wives and WACs at Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was created that ended the war.
Included in these chapters are letters from many women in these different categories, explaining how their everyday lives changed (for better or worse), providing some eye-opening experiences that I have never read about, such as how Japanese-American women interned in detention camps survived the terrible living conditions by our own country, a dark stain in our country’s history in my estimation. In this section I learned that some first generation Japanese women (Nisei women) did join the WACs at the request of the USA, despite the fact that some of their family members were still in the camps. The Army Nurse Corps eventually lifted the ban on Japanese-American women joining the corps, but the Navy never did allow Nisei women during the war. Like the Nisei men, the women were asked to sign two allegiance questions, and the men who did not were called the No-No boys. (See my next review of a children’s book with the same title, below.)
There is so much packed into the 447 pages of this book that a history teacher or college professor in a women’s study course could easily use it on a regular basis. I would have loved such a course, even though history was never my favorite topic in school. There are also photos of women and other historical pictures from this period, as well as photos of the author’s mother as a Red Cross volunteer. To her credit, Yellin devotes almost 20 pages to notes related to statements/letters/diaries, etc. in the chapters, followed by a 13-page bibliography. This writer has definitely done her homework! I highly recommend it, especially if you want to know more about women’s roles in WWII.
Our Mothers’ War is published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York, copyright 2004 and costs $26.00 in hardback. If you do a search, you will find many links to read about it and purchase it. This would make a great gift to younger women who are unfamiliar with this topic, as well as women whose mother or aunt or grandmother was a young mother during WWII.
The No-No Boys, by Teresa Funke, is about Japanese-American families interned in detention camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. More than 55,000 Japanese-American children, born to parents who migrated from Japan to America before this historic event took place, lived in these camps. This book is a fictional version based on real people and actual events, as is the other books I have reviewed by Teresa Funke, Dancing in Combat Boots and Doing My Part.
In this book, the author writes about young boys and young men who are very unhappy about being in the camps. While their parents are prepared to make the best of their new surroundings and difficult lives to show their loyalty to the US, the young men in this story are struggling with their confinement, especially when asked to sign their names to two questions before signing up to fight in the war.
In Our Mothers’ War (reviewed above) and this book, the No-No is explained. Before 1942, no Nisei Japanese were asked to join the U.S. Army, having been classified as “enemy aliens.” But by 1943 the War Department changed its position and the Army embarked on creating an all-Nisei unit with a questionnaire as part of the recruitment to ensure loyalty the U.S. Two questions created a problem for many of the young Nisei men, many of whom were eager to leave the camps.
Question #27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Question #28 asked both the Nisei (and Issei, those who were born in Japan) to swear absolute allegiance to the U.S. and relinquish their allegiance to any foreign government. This was the more difficult question and in the story, the main character’s older brother is faced with these two questions. These young men became to be called the No-No Boys.
But the book is actually important (to me) because it shows daily life in the internment camps, which were not the same as the German concentration camps where prisoners were starved to death, placed in labor camps, tortured and gassed. However, these Japanese-Americans lost their homes and their possessions and lost their freedom, so daily life was a struggle physically and mentally.
Because I was too young to remember the war, this book helped me understand the plight of the Japanese much better. Because it is for children, the plot is much simpler and clearer. It is an excellent way to explain to young students an important part of American history, albeit a shady side of our country’s history. At least the truth is revealed and not hidden—not a pleasant side, but one we should teach our children.
Teresa Funke’s stories are a great way to teach our children and grand children an important piece of U.S. history that is both clear and interesting. The No-No Boys is published by Victory House Press and costs $7.95. Theresa’s website is www.teresafunke.com. You can go there and submit your own family’s stories to invite the author to speak at your school. This book makes a great gift for a youngster who will learn about life in the U.S. for Japanese-Americans in WWII.