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“In 1941, WWII begins for the United States, and life will never be the same for three women as they send their husbands, brothers, and friends off to war. Ruth, a young wife and teacher, Lilly her teenaged sister-in-law, and Helen, a British war bride, learn to cope with rationing, change, fear, loss, humiliation, and brutality while they forge an impenetrable bond and grow to be stronger than any of them ever dreamed possible. They lean on each other for support, aided by the family and friends who surround them, but when one decides to go to the front lines as part of the American Red Cross Clubmobile program, how can they cope with her absence—and more telegrams reporting loss?”
Apart from being well-researched historical fiction, On the Homefront by Barb Warner Deane falls neatly into the category of ‘women’s fiction’. The story of an extended farming family living in a small town in upstate New York during the Second World War, the novel begins with the innocent, somewhat self-obsessed teenager Lilly Walker making her birthday preparations. This day, though, will forever be remembered as ‘Pearl Harbor’. Nothing is the same in the Walker household thereafter. Lilly’s two older brothers immediately join the Army, leaving behind their wives, the rather bovine Clara, and caring, sensible and wise Ruth.
As the story progresses, Lilly goes to work in a local factory, where she meets Helen, a British war-bride, who is less than welcome in her American in-laws' home. Helen soon moves in with the Walkers. There are a few minor problems with Helen’s London East End back story, but nothing that spoils the author’s examination of women pulling together in a time of crisis. Ruth then becomes the central focus of the story as she joins the Red Cross and travels abroad where she sees frontline action.
Lilly, Ruth and Helen, grow and develop as ‘strong female characters’, showing how the war, despite its terrible nature and the personal tragedies it engendered, enabled many women to develop skills that would have been otherwise confined to home-making. In many respects this is a perceptive and revealing work of fiction, and for this it is well worth reading. Better editing, however, would have made it a better book. The early part of the novel would have benefitted from some judicious cutting. Readers see what is happening through action and dialogue, but this is then repeated when characters write the same scene into their letters. (Useful reminders if one is reading the book on a daily commute, of course.) The last quarter of the novel relies almost entirely on letters to tell the reader what is happening, which is a shame because Ruth’s war experience is virtually lost this way.
I also have a personal concern with the depiction of mother of the Walker family, Julia or ‘Mom’, who cooks and cleans for more and more of people as waifs and strays join the household without getting weary or losing her temper. Mom simply dishes up the next meal then does the washing up, and she never gets frazzled. Was this because Mom was doing her bit for the war effort on the home front, or because women like that are simply made of sterner stuff? In fact, this applies to all the Walker family and those attached to it as workers or guests. With the notable exception of the man who rapes Lilly and Helen’s unpleasant mother-in-law, there are no real antagonists in this novel, characters generally lack flaws, and almost everyone is truly ‘nice’ and/or ‘good’.
Taken as a whole, ‘On the Homefront’ is a worthwhile, heart-warming story about some of the hidden women in history. If you enjoy women’s fiction with a historical background, Barb Warner Deane is an author to follow.