Sunday, September 10, 2017

Home Front: Life in America During World War II, by Audible Original, Martin Sheen (narrator)

Audible Original, September 2017

This is an Audible Original production; there is no previous book. It uses oral histories including contemporaneous materials to look at what life was like at home during World War II.

Long ago when I was young, World War II was truly a living memory; not only did we study it in school, but our parents had lived through it, often served in the war. We knew about Pearl Harbor, and we knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Depending on where we lived, even if we were not Jewish we were likely to know people who had sadly truncated families because so many relatives had died in the death camps. We knew the names of the major battles in Europe and in the Pacific.

This isn't about that. This is about what happened at home, in the US, something rarely covered in any meaningful way in our school classes, and apparently much less interesting for our parents and aunts and uncles to talk about.

This is about rationing and paper drives and saving cooking oil. It's about women being pressured both to enter the work force in ways they had never been allowed to before, and at the same time being pressured to be soft and beautiful and willing, for the soldiers going off to war. It's about African-Americans (though Negro was still the preferred term at the time) seeking both the right to fight for their country on equal footing with white Americans, and to be treated equally when they did serve. It's about Japanese-Americans being rounded up into camps as "enemy aliens," and about young Japanese-American men forming the most decorated combat unit of the war.

It's about how disruptive all this was to social life in America, as people were suddenly working and living alongside races and ethnicities they'd never had much or even any contact with before.

It's told in the voices of the people who lived it. Some were recorded for the still new and exciting radio, during the war. Others were recorded after the war, even decades later, for a variety of oral history projects. I think everyone will learn something from this. I've always been a history buff, and I thought I knew this history pretty well, but many details were new, and some things were completely new. Antisemitism, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the much less comprehensive round-up of Italian-Americans, the German-American Bund--I'd encountered all of those.

Mexican-Americans and the "zoot suit riots" were completely new to me. I'd encountered the term "zoot suit" and the idea that it was associated with a relatively wild lifestyle, a forties version of the Beat Generation or the 1920s flappers. In fact it wasn't that different, except for its timing in the war, meaning that people came in contact with it who could have sneered at it from a distance in other eras.

The zoot suit was style of men's suit favored by, initially Mexican-Americans, and it became associated with their perceived wild lifestyle. They were in fact working hard in war factories like their contemporaries, but the war's movement of people to where war work was necessary, along with all ethnicities enlisting and mixing in the military meant that relatively straight-laced, Protestant, midwestern whites came in contact with this Latin, Roman Catholic culture that was much more expressive, looser, culture, more oriented to dance, music, and colorful clothing as well as activities in their leisure time. That contact, probably predictably, didn't go well. There were riots. I found it fascinating--especially as my own Roman Catholic, half-Sicilian background finds the zoot suit culture as described a lot more normal than midwestern Protestants who thought dancing was sinful.

There's also extended discussion of returning soldiers and the effects of what we now call PTSD, which was barely understood at the time.

Some of this is pretty explicit, and it can be even more startling because so much of it is in the voices of those who lived through it, speaking at the time--on a radio program intended to send the views of ordinary Americans to President Roosevelt, for instance--much of it is not filtered through later sensitivities. Be prepared to hear how people really felt then, not just how they remembered it later.

Highly recommended.

This program was available for download free "for a short time" when I got it from Audible.