So far I’ve showcased stories set in Regency England and present day US, but I’m a lover of all historical eras and spent many years with my nose stuck in books of the 1940s. It began with Molly from the America Girl Collection and continued I my teen years when my favorite aunt gave me her original copies of Cherry Ames books. Something about reading of the 1940s gave history such a concrete feeling. There were men in my church who had fought and could tell stories. Their wives would talk about rationing and waiting for letters. The sense of honor, integrity, duty and love was so rich with them. It touched me more than reading about Victorian America, Regency England, Medieval Frace or Ancient Egypt ever could. They were real men and women who had lived through history’s most terrible and far reaching war. They were people I aspired to be like. They were everyday heroes walking amongst us.
It gives me immeasurable pleasure to host Cat Gardiner, author of 3 contemporary Austenesque novels, as she launches a new website, The Forties Experience, about her research. I admit reading about her experiences and history finds leaves me a tad jealous! Ms. Gardiner believes in giving readers a total immersion experince with her Pinterest boards full of music, fashion and other images and companion blogs. It’s like method acting for reading. I can’t wait to read her WWII era novels and already love her blog!
1) What first sparked your interest in the WWII era?
On a personal level, it began when I lived in Philadelphia in the late 90s. The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum outside of Reading hosted an annual WWII weekend and I was blown away! There were separate encampments with re-enactors for the two theaters of war, a home front section, and warbirds. Some visitors dressed in period clothing and we attended lectures in army tents given by veterans. It was a phenomenal experience and I got to shake hands with the pilot of The Memphis Belle and meet the navigator of the Enola Gay! That began my husband’s interest in becoming a living historian, and it sparked my desire to learn more about the American home front experience.
As a writer, my first WWII story bunny was sparked by an elderly couple, patients of my husband. They were married 67 years, having met via letter writing during the war. What began with Frances and Paul acquiring a pen pal, resulted in marriage when Paul returned home from the Pacific. I wanted to write about a romance that developed over letter writing, and did so.
2)What is your favorite research find or historical nugget or thing about writing novels set in WWII?
There are so many research gems about the home front that I love, but I absolutely adored discovering the Victory Book Campaign (VBC.) Books. Since we’re all novel lovers here, allow me to share with your readers.
We take the ready accessibility of books for granted in our modern era. They’re right there at our fingertips online, in shops, and at the library, but for our Armed Forces during WWII there needed to be a coordinated movement to get books into the hands of the boys.
In coordination with the War Department and sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Red Cross (ARC,) and the United Service Organizations (USO,) the VBC was officially formed in December 1941. Libraries saw the need for more books when the military flooded into small town training camps. The ARC wanted to send books to military hospitals, then later on the Clubmobile and to POW camps, bringing them a little slice of home. The USO was opening recreational clubs for “the boys” on the outskirts of training fields, then later in Europe, providing all the comforts they missed. Book deposits were set up at strategic locations for the public to drop off unwanted books. The 1942 campaign was publicized and promoted by publishers, businesses, newspapers and stars of stage and screen, collecting almost 11 million books, half trashed as unsuitable for use (most likely the paper was recycled for military production purposes.)
There was great irony and wisdom when Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1942, “A war of ideas can no more be won without books than a naval war can be won without ships.” Our democratic nation fought a Nazi ideology that censored, banned, and burned books: Helen Keller, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway to name a few. Of course we would be the victor!
As an aside, but interesting factoid: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925, The Great Gatsby had been a flop, unheralded, his works on a downward slope until the VBC and the creation of an Armed Services Edition of the novel resurrected it.
3) Why is WWII still worth examining and talking about today?
The most important reason is to learn from the past. As a living historian, my husband teaches the military past, preserving the experience. I try to do that in my WWII-era romance novels. Anti-Semitism, segregation, women’s struggles, eugenics, ethnic prejudices—it’s all there in this small yet most pivotal and powerful period of American history. When we fail to learn it or teach it fully, facts can easily become distorted and whitewashed—the experiences and lessons disappear.
The men of the war were brave men—young boys, really. Bravery under the most insurmountable conditions that is hard to even fathom. They, to me, represent the beacon of liberty, sacrificing for a nation they loved, and they passed the torch to the generations that followed in military service. Those men are leaving their history behind at a rate of 430 per day. By 2036 there will be no living WWII veterans— or their sweethearts—left to share their experiences.
For the mighty cause of victory over tyranny, the call to action rallied Americans to “Do Their Bit.” Phase two of the women’s movement was ushered in when they entered factories, the military, and volunteer service organizations. A few became war correspondents (even though the government and the boys hated that idea,) and several were spies for the OSS! Everything was “for the boys” to assist in victory and bring them home safely.
4) Would you be a home front Rosie the Riveter or war front nurse or WAC?
If in France, I would have been a member of the French Resistance. On the home front, I’d have been a Rosie, just to annoy every man who remained home scoffing at all the women as they entered the factories and ship yards.
5) How is modern culture different, or are we mostly the same?
Gosh! The lessons we can take from the home front experience alone are immeasurable. In a modern society we pretty much have everything at our disposal, 24/7. We cannot comprehend what it means to “Make Do” by reusing and truly recycling for four years of war. When something isn’t working, we purchase a new one without even thought of fixing it (because we don’t know how and it’s cheaper to just buy a new one.) Want to talk with a friend? Sorry Charlie, either pick up a land line or write a letter. Need more coffee? We make a Costco run and buy 80 K-cups without having to produce a ration coupon in 1942/43. Want to drive 90 miles to see a friend? Sure, hop in the car and go. 1942 Newsflash: Sorry, gas is rationed, too. You’ve been designated a “Class A” driver and only get three gallons a week! But those are ration inconveniences vs. the freedom of convenience, progress, and luxury that we have now.
In our essentials, we are the same as The Greatest Generation. Yes, ladies wore hats and gloves, went to religious services, and infrequently wore trousers in public. Men were gentlemen and society had stricter norms. Although an unmarried woman was less likely to go to bed with a man, sex did happen. Teenagers smoked and snuck out to see Frank Sinatra at the Paramount. They had dreams, and many had the gumption to defy society’s rigid standards to follow them. Music was a way of life, an integral part of morale boosting both at home and overseas on the Armed Forces Radio.
Like our predecessors, we dance, we laugh, and we make lifelong friends. My first WWII novel, The Very Thought of You written as a JAFF in 2012, introduced me to my two dearest friends, Sheryl and Pamela. You might say the war brought us together, as it did girls working in the factories.
We face challenges—struggle with feelings, sorrow and loneliness—and we deal with the human condition as it comes, attempting to smile through the tears and make the best of it just as they did.
Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Rose and for these thought-provoking questions. As an Historical Fiction lover, you really have set the tone for why I am launching a non-JAFF, serious side of Cat Gardiner that many have not seen before. I’m so excited that 2016 has arrived because it is time for my WWII-era romance novels to emerge from my bookshelf. I’d love for the reader to join me in The Forties Experience, learn as I learn, and experience romance through strong characters in an era that burned in Europe, the Pacific, and in America where sweethearts kept “the home fires burning.”
In honor of this really proud moment of launching another brand of my writing, I have designed a special website devoted to my Forties Experience: http://www.cgardiner1940s.com/ I will be blogging twice a month (already started,) sending newsletters (started that, too,) and actively Tweeting (Yup, lots to see there.) Make sure you sign up to have a swell time and get the latest as I near publication of my first WWII novel: A Moment Forever in late spring.