These WWII YA books may be sexist, but their message for unity is one today’s America needs

WW2_booksLike John Boyne’s unforgettable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the young adult version of Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring Unbroken, the majority of YA books published today about World War II focus on its horrors. Not so during the war itself, when publishers like Whitman (popular from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s) sought out books written to heighten support for the United States entering the war and muster participation in homefront efforts. Printed on the dust cover of Norma Kent of the WACS, as example, was this call to action:

For Victory—
SAVE COOKING FATS AND GREASE!
Grease makes bullets and shells and bombs
for our soldiers. You can help them win!

Norma Kent of the WACS was one of Whitman’s most popular titles featuring a female protagonist determined to do whatever it takes to help Allied troops defeat Germany and Japan. Set in New England, it tells the exciting story of Norma, a Nancy Drew-like character who tracks down spies and shadowy villains intent on destroying America.

Roy Snell, a WWI veteran and graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, wrote Norma Kent along with two other titles in Whitman’s Fighters for Freedom series: Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command and Sally Scott of the WAVES. In Sparky Ames, Mary is a pilot and member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron who, among other adventures, rescues Sparky after his plane is shot down by enemy fire over Brazil. In Sally Scott, Sally breaks regulations by bringing a new kind of radio capable of picking up “secret frequencies” onto an aircraft carrier. Invented by her neighbor, the device causes more trouble than good for Sally–until, that is, her commanding officers learn they can use it to track enemy submarines and save American ships and sailors.

Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table
Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table

Sally Scott opens with a fellow Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service unit member discovering her secret:

It was mid-afternoon of a cloudy day in early autumn. Sally Scott glided to the one wide window in her room and pulled down the shade. Then, with movements that somehow suggested deep secrecy, she took an oblong, black box, not unlike an overnight bag, from the closet. After placing this with some care on her study table, she pressed a button, and caught the broad side of the box, that, falling away, revealed a neat row of buttons and switches. Above these was an inch-wide opening where a number of spots shone dimly.

After a glance over her shoulder, Sally shook her head, tossing her reddish-brown hair about, fixed her eyes on this strange box and then with her long, slender, nervous fingers threw on a switch, another, and yet another in quick succession. Settling back in her chair, she watched the spots above the switches turn into tiny, gleaming, red lamps that gave off an eerie light.

“Red for blood, black for death,” someone had said to her. She shuddered at the thought.

From the box came a low, humming sound. She turned a switch. The hum increased. She turned it again and once more the hum rose in intensity. This time, however, it was different. Suddenly the hum was broken by a low, indistinct hut—hut—gr—gr—gr—hut—hut—hut.

“Oh!” The girl’s lips parted as a look of surprise and almost of triumph spread over her face.

And then, suddenly, she started to leap from her chair. A key had rattled in the door.

Before she could decide what she should do, the door swung open and someone snapped on a light.

Thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg, you can read Sally Scott of the WAVES, Norma Kent of the WACS and Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command for free and in their entirety. Today’s readers will likely find the books to be sexist, perpetuating gender stereotypes and limiting what women can do.

Indeed, they are sexist. But they’re also great fun, as well as provide an insightful look into the beliefs and mindset of 1943 America. Their message about the need for national unity is also one today’s America needs to hear.

Making The Shining: A short film made by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter

The original cover of The Shining. Published in 1977, it was King's third published novel and first hardcover bestseller. The setting and characters were based on personal experiences, including King's visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado and his recovery from alcoholism.
The original cover of The Shining. Published in 1977, it was King’s third published novel and first hardcover bestseller. The setting and characters were based on personal experiences, including King’s visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado and his recovery from alcoholism.

What’s the scariest book you ever read? Mine is Maine resident Stephen King’s The Shining, which I read for the first time just a couple of years ago. Even at 40-something years old, I had to put it down several times, especially when I was reading in bed, at night, when everyone else in the house was asleep, and an unexplainable creek or groan occurred.

More than once, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the end. I was that creeped-out and uncomfortable. But watching Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining? Not the same experience at all. Of course, the movie is scary and horrifying. But it’s also enjoyably magnificent, thanks in large part to Kubrick’s vision and the terrific acting, especially by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

Poking around Open Culture the other day, I found a neat 30-minute documentary called Making The Shining, which was shot by Kubrick’s then-17-year-old daughter Vivian and aired on the BBC.

One of the many highlights of the film: Nicholson brushing his teeth after a smelly lunch–talking about how he wants to be considerate to his fellow actors–and then immediately lighting up a cigarette. He struts across the set and is clearly the production’s star, leaving Duvall to feel very left out. When she collapses from the stress of filming and her personal life, it’s sad but not that much of a surprise. She talks very candidly about it.

Vivian with The Shining cast and crew on set.
Vivian with The Shining cast and crew on set.

Poem in a Virtual Pocket: Long Island Sound

Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.
Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.

EmmaLazarus-1_3If I was able to get my act together this morning (which I was not), I would have made copies of “Long Island Sound” by New York writer Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) and properly celebrated “Poem in Your Pocket Day” by sharing it at all the places I went.

But alas, this did not happen. And the day is now almost over, even though it feels like it’s just begun! So I’ll pretend this blog is my pocket, and that we’re meeting somewhere along Long Island Sound.

My house on a hill in Connecticut looks out over the Sound, which technically is a 21-mile tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, located between the southern Connecticut and northern Long Island, NY, shores. I’ve been lucky enough to live near it my whole life.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Long Island Sound
By Emma Lazarus
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

Manhattan Project anniversary = Wives of Los Alamos giveaway

Wives of Los AlamosSeventy years ago this week on April 27, 1945, members of the World War II-era Manhattan Project‘s Target Committee met for the first time to begin selecting sites in Japan to drop the atomic bomb. Tokyo Bay, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kokura, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Sasebo were among the possibilities.

The novel The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit–first released in hardcover last year–tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the perspective of the scientists’ wives, who did not know what their husbands were building.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, was the location of the principal research and design laboratory for the atomic bomb’s creation. Yet in the same place this life-destroying force was being created, so were life-enriching ones: babies were born, friendships forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos itself transformed from a boys school on a hill into a community–though not a typical one. Its residents, particularly its wives, were strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud, the letters they couldn’t send home, and the freedoms they didn’t have.

Focused on the remarkable group of women who carved out a life there, The Wives of Los Alamos wonderfully brings this time, project and community to life … And Literary New England has two copies of the paperback to give way to you!

To win one, like Literary New England’s Facebook page and comment on our Facebook post that links to this article. If you already like us on Facebook, just comment. Deadline is midnight tonight, April 29!

You can learn more about TaraShea Nesbit and The Wives of Los Alamos by listening to our 2014 interview with her in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.
WivesOFLosAlamos_abomb_grandeAn image of the first atomic bomb being exploded and observed by Manhattan Project staff. It was detonated at 5:30 a.m. July 16, 1945, at the Alamogordo air base, 250 miles south of Los Alamos. As most people know, Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the two Japanese sites chosen to be destroyed by the nuclear weapons developed by the Manhattan Project. “Woe is me” was Albert Einstein’s reaction.

Scissors, please. These Spinster-inspired paper dolls are a must!

Spinster Paper DollsBy Cindy Wolfe Boynton
What’s very possibly one of the best things, in my whole life, that I’ve ever stumbled across? These super-awesome literary spinster paper dolls, which were created to go along with the release of journalist Kate Bolick‘s memoir Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Adding to my excitement is that like Bolick herself (who grew up in Newburyport, Mass.), four of the five literary goddesses turned paper play-things have ties to New England. In Spinster, Bolick weaves their lives and choices into her own, showing us the unconventional ideas and lifestyles of:

  • Journalist Neith Boyce, who lived in Massachusetts and is buried in New Hampshire
  • Social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the must-read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who was born in Hartford, Conn.
  • Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was born in Rockland, Maine
  • Novelist Edith Wharton, who lived in Massachusetts

Irish writer and essayist Maeve Brennan is also featured.

Download printable versions of the paper dolls here, which are part of a “Spinster Kit” that also includes recipes for each of these writers’ favorite cocktails, a list of their works you should read, and a Spinster discussion guide.

SpinsterIn Spinster, which grew out a 2011 cover story Bolick wrote for the Atlantic, Bolick explores not just modern notions of romance, family, career and success, but why she, and more than 100 million other American women, remains unmarried. She uses her personal experiences as a starting point to delve into the history of the idea of spinsterhood, examine her own intellectual and sexual coming of age, and discover why so many fear the life she has come to relish.

Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton each helped shape Bolick, influencing both her personal and career choices and, ultimately, this book.

Kate Bolick will be one of my guests on the May 11, 2015 Literary New England Radio Show. We’ll also be giving away copies of Spinster, so save the date!

You may also want to mark Friday, May 15, on your calendar. From 5-7 pm, Bolick will be at Edith Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox, Mass, to give a free reading and signing. Entitled “Kate Bolick’s Awakening at The Mount: A Reading and Reception to Celebrate Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” the event will feature hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and, says The Mount website, “conversation about what it means to live independently.” Bolick will also read from Spinster and then sign copies.

If you go, please send photos! I’m so incredibly bummed not to be able to attend.

Random House went through 100 designs before deciding on Hausfrau’s cover

Watching this video takes just more than one minute. But choosing the cover of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s New York Times best-selling Hausfrau was a lengthy task. An article on Mashable explains:

“I worked with five designers, one illustrator and two letterers on more than a hundred versions of the jacket,” said Robbin Schiff, executive art director at Random House Publishing Group.

The design, as Schiff sees it, should give readers a clue about the experience, or how they will feel while reading the book, “rather than giving away the plot or the the details of the story.”

“The final design, with its stark Swiss typography against the moody and lush floral grouping, conveys a sensual but claustrophobic atmosphere,” Schiff said.

That mood is especially fitting for a book like Hausfrau, which tells the tragic story of adultery and a breakdown of a woman and her marriage.

I don’t think I agree with the Mashable reporter’s use of the word “tragic” in describing Hausfrau. I’d use the word “uncomfortable,” or maybe “darkly insightful.” And as I’m typing this, I’m wondering how much of my different perspective comes from the fact that I’m a woman, and the Mashable reporter is a man.

Hausfrau, which has been described as a “modern-day Anna Karenina,” is the story of 30-something-year-old Anna, an American living with her husband in Switzerland and struggling with isolation, among other challenges, because she can’t speak the language. Desperate to feel happy again, she tries to figure out her life through a series of new experiences, including German language classes, Jungian analysis and a series of sexual affairs that she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

As Jill and I talked about on the Literary New England Radio Show earlier this month, Hausfrau can be erotic, but at its heart it’s an exploration–an exploration of how we lose ourselves, and the imperfect choices that can help us find ourselves again. That doesn’t sound very tragic to me.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Elizabeth Berg, Kristy Cambron & Susan Crawford: Amazing lineup for tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show!

3books_660_April27Each of the acclaimed authors on tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show will sweep you away–to 1800s Paris, to German-control WWII Prague, and into the mind of a woman with bipolar disorder who can’t remember whether she murdered her friend. Join us at 8 p.m. for interviews and book giveaways with:

  • Elizabeth Berg on The Dream Lover, a lush historical novel based on the sensuous life of 19th century writer George Sand
  • Kristy Cambron on A Sparrow in Terezin, a powerful story of hope, survival and two women, in two different times, whose lives are perilously bound by a Holocaust survivor
  • Susan Crawford on The Pocket Wife, a thrilling exploration of marriage, murder, and a woman on the edge of madness

Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton. Poke around this site for more book giveaways, author talk, event information and to listen to past episodes — book-tatstic updates posted regularly!