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Review: Our Longest Days, Sandra Koa Wing

ourlongestdaysThis is a compilation of several diaries from World War II collected by the Mass Observations project.  This project was designed in 1937 to see what the people of Britain were really thinking.  In the beginning, the writers responded to prompts, but by the start of the war they were asked to keep diaries of their thoughts, feelings, and actions for posterity.  These diarists are surprisingly intimate, giving details of their own lives in far more detail than those of the war, and this collection aims to give us a closer look into how the public really dealt with the war.

I found these diaries to be absolutely riveting.  The book is filled with the everyday life of people going about in war for five years of their lives.  Their lives all change in ways they probably didn’t imagine – some of them say so, like Muriel Green who becomes a gardener for the cause – and it’s absorbing to watch it happen.  I thought the most striking thing about the diaries was that they were not overly dramatic and the people in them did not seem very dismayed by the thought that a bomb could kill them at any time.  Sometimes nearby houses are destroyed with people in them but the diarist in question always remains remarkably calm.  They’ll remark on the bombing of another town, but never seem worried that their own is next, although I’m sure they must have been.  The only outpouring of emotion was from a man who lost his brother in the war, which results in some of the saddest and somehow most beautiful passages conveyed in the book.

Mostly, though, this book is a story full of the little things, improvising meals, shopping for clothes, trying to see sweethearts, job-hunting, dealing with the blackout, a robbery, births, deaths, dances, and kisses.  All the ordinary bits of life go on amidst a country struck by war.  People are people even when the Germans threaten to invade and sirens rush them into bomb shelters multiple times a day.  Even more interesting is considering what these reactions say about the British public at large during World War II.  It would be truly fascinating to compare these diaries with newpapers and other media produced at the time in order to see the differences in reaction to the war.

I was a little disappointed to discover that most of the diarists were given pen names since their families could not be contacted for permission, but it’s understandable.  Apparently the Mass Observation project was viewed in some circles as spying, since diarists gave details of not only their own lives but their neighbors’ as well without permission.  So in this book, names are shortened to a single letter if permission has not been given and summaries of diarists’ lives are reduced to a few lines regarding what they were doing in the war.

Overall I’m delighted to see a historical archive like this published and I can only imagine how amazing it would be to work in such an archive as is still going on now.  I have another book of theirs on my shelf; it is the post-war diaries of Nella Last, one of the most prolific diarists and one whose family has given permission for her real name to be used.  It’s called Nella Last’s Peace.  I’m very much looking forward to it; I’ll be reviewing it in March.

And a final note, I discovered after completing the compilation that the editor, Sandra Koa Wing, passed away aged only 28 in 2007 after a battle with cancer.  I think this wonderful book is a tribute to her since her future career in history was cut so tragically short.

Buy Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War on Amazon.

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