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The year is 1945. World War II is over, and an ocean liner is setting sail from Australia for the United States. On board are dozens of war brides—women who have met and married American soldiers during the conflict—all looking forward to reunions with their husbands stateside. Among them are Sheila, still a teenager, who left her parents' house in a dreamy swirl of rebellion and Hollywood expectations; Dawn, already a war widow with two young children; and Gaynor, the glamorous daughter of an abusive alcoholic who views her wealthy new husband as a chance to rewrite her own story. As the three women land, however, their fantasies collide with sobering realities.
Sheila's loving and handsome husband lives in backcountry squalor in rural Virginia—a far cry from her comfortable, middle class childhood—and he has no plan for postwar employment. Sheila's dreams of becoming a nurse feel distant for a married woman with no money. Under the tutelage of a local doctor, however, she starts to imagine a better life. As Dawn and her husband Zac settle into the Ohio home of his foster family, his mother Suds proves to be an overbearing religious zealot who's critical of Dawn and her children. To make matters worse, Zac spends long stretches of time at the military base and doesn't seem ready to be a husband and father. Left to run the household, Dawn must confront her fears about being alone.
Meanwhile, Gaynor is thrilled by the luxuries of her husband Ricky's Country Club Estate home in Kansas City—until she realizes that Ricky has no interest in following his father's footsteps or even in accepting his financial support. He plans to return to Princeton to get his Ph.D. Since Gaynor has no intention of living in a student apartment, she grasps at any alternative to hold onto her dream, which may or may not include Ricky.
As the three women struggle to make their way in a foreign country, each must find her own path to happiness. Alternating between her characters' points of view, Lois Battle tells the story not only of their brave adjustment to postwar American life, but of the strength that each discovers in herself. Bighearted, vividly drawn, and moving, War Brides is a captivating classic about the momentous choices women make..
Lois Battle's seven novels include Bed and Breakfast, The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary and Sewing Circle, Storyville, War Brides, and A Habit of the Blood. She lives in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Q. You are the child of an Australian war bride. Can you talk about how your own family history inspired the writing of this book? Which, if any, aspects of the story came from real life?
My biological father was an Aussie in the Royal Australian Air Force, killed in South Africa when I was about eighteen months old. When MacArthur was forced out of the Philippines, the Americans pulled back to Australia. The joke (not that I understood it at the time) was that there were three things wrong with the Yanks: they were overpaid, oversexed, and over here. But the Aussies were damned glad to see them.
My grandfather had warned my mother and her sister that he didn't want them going out with Americans but he was the one who met my future stepfather and brought him home. He, John Battle, became a great friend of the family, married my mother (I remember the wedding), and my sister, Colleen was born. Then he returned to the United States and there was the long wait until we could follow him.
The voyage over was a great adventure because even as a four-year-old, I shared the euphoria of having won the war, and had no consciousness of how I'd miss my grandparents. My mother was seasick a lot of the time and confined to her bunk so I had the run of the ship (a converted troop transport), with the crew and other war brides giving me watchful but indulgent care. I remember the wonder of the ocean, seeing dolphins, the ceremony when we crossed the equator, telling a steward that I didn't like "jam with meat" when I was served a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey with cranberry sauce, and the final excitement of docking: "We're in America!"
I also called upon some unconscious memories of the trip: A few months after the book was first published, I was going through a box of photos at my parents' home in Ohio and came across a picture of a young woman with a child on her hip. She was standing on a dilapidated porch in the woods throwing feed out to chickens. I said, "Oh, that's Sheila!" and my mother looked and corrected, "No, that's Sally. Remember we went to visit her maybe two years after we arrived." Then I remembered that we'd driven to her home in the Ozarks and she'd served us squirrel stew for supper and I'd whispered to my mother that I didn't want to eat it and my mother had pinched my arm and whispered back, "You'll eat what's put on your plate and say thank you." My mother later got in touch with Sally.
Q. This book was first written in 1982. In what ways do you think readers might respond differently to the story today?
I think it's difficult to remember the high regard in which Americans—Yanks—were held. As for the personal stories of women who leave their homes and follow the men they love to another place, I don't think it's changed much at all. A woman who leaves her home environment, even to go to another state, is at a loss, without relatives, friends, local sights, or customs to give her comfort and support. Who is she going to turn to if her husband turns out to be less than she'd hoped him to be? For a time, she's pretty much dependent on him for financial and social support and can feel very much alone. I remember when I was in first grade in the United States telling another child that my mother was "homesick." She asked, "What kind of sick is that?" I knew that it was a mix of missing relatives, food you'd grown up with, places you'd known; but I couldn't explain. My stepfather, John Battle, was career military, so we moved a great deal. I've experienced and seen this sense of watchfulness, of trying to fit in and "psych out" the situation in other military brats in new schools. Some become shy; others become very socially adept— "world travelers."
Q. You skillfully weave the social, cultural, and historical shifts of the 1940s and 1950s into your narrative. Which developments of this era were most significant for you as the storyteller? Which might have the greatest impact on your characters?
In those days most married women were not expected to work outside the home—some even thought it reflected on their husband's earning ability if they had to—and educational and career opportunities for women were far more limited. When Sheila's golden Hollywood vision of Babes on Broadway turns into something more reflective of The Grapes of Wrath and she realizes both she and Billy have to work, I researched requirements for some nursing schools in their area and found that some restricted enrollment for married women or women with children. Women had been praised (e.g., Rosie the Riveter) for contributing to the war effort, but after the war was over that work dried up and they were expected to go back to "normal" married life and raising children. Housing was scarce, hence the growth of the suburbs (or Dawn and Zac living in a storefront). The Pill was not yet available.
Q. You pay a good deal of attention to the war brides' interactions with their mothers-in-law, each of whom are memorable characters in her own right. Why did you choose to highlight this relationship?
As any woman knows, mothers-in-law are very important. They are the women who raised the men we marry and those men cannot but have taken on many of their attitudes and traits. Sharp-eyed Gaynor intuits Etna's vulnerabilities from the start. Billy's ma is loving and always willing to help. We can see early on why Zac's adopted mother, Suds, has been a prime reason for him to make the military his home and why he may be so sadly incapable of expressing his emotions.
Q. We end the novel with Sheila. What compelled you in particular about her story?
I love Sheila and her struggles. She is the one who grows the most. She has to cope with so many things she did not count on and in each instance she rises to the challenge. I love the scene where she wakes up after a night of passionate lovemaking to discover just where she is and struggles across the dirt yard to the outhouse in her red high heels and her learning from Dr. Helen. And when at the end she says, "I am home, Billy. I'm home free," she means not just geographical location but that she's free (well, mostly) of her illusions and fantasies. She's ready to face reality and deal with it.
Q. Love takes on different forms for the characters in this book, but there's a romantic notion here that only the purest love is the one that will endure. What shaped your view on this subject? Has it changed since the time you wrote it?
Ah, that initial rush of romantic love/sex is so overwhelming. And sometimes it's the glue that keeps marriages together. But now that I'm older I think that having someone who gets my jokes, makes me laugh, and is loyal is most vital.
Q. A poignant and chilling moment in War Brides comes when a drunken Gaynor stands in the light at the actor's apartment and he tells her she should be an actress. What did you want your readers to feel in that scene?
When we envision Gaynor's childhood we can see that she has always been and will be an actress in the worst sense of the word. Even in her most intimate moments with Richard she is withholding and manipulative. This makes her a very lonely, self-conscious, and isolated woman. I don't have any particular notion of what I want my readers to feel about her or any other character. That's up to them. What I feel is a sense of aversion but also a sense of pity. What can her future possibly be?
Q. Sheila's ability to transform herself and her husband belies an extraordinary amount of personal strength. How did you set about creating her character? From where did you draw your inspiration for her?
I've already talked about discovering Sheila in my unconscious mind. I believe—indeed I've seen—many people make it out of extraordinarily bad circumstances by what seems their sheer hope, work, and will—and a little bit of luck. My mother remained friends with the actual Sheila/Sally as she did with many other war brides—English, even German and Italian. It's Sheila's belief that life can be better that pulls her through. Imagination and hope for a good life when experience has proved contrary is a very powerful thing.
Q. You have since written many books about women, their relationships, and the choices they face in finding their own agency. How does War Brides fit into your overall bibliography? Is there a particular theme that kept popping up in your novels over the course of your career?
My mother's experience was of primary importance. For her background (she never finished high school) and generation she was a brave woman, and she always had a host of female friends on whom she could rely. I, too, have been blessed with long-lasting female friendships of intimacy and depth. While I admired my mother's ability to follow my stepfather and make a home anywhere, I knew early on that such a life was not for me. Both my parents were adamant about the need for education and somewhat distressed when I chose the arts. They thought it was too risky. They were right. Unfortunately, my stepfather died just about the time I started to receive recognition as a writer. But my mother lived to enjoy it.
I didn't realize until someone pointed it out to me that many of my novels have to do with comings and goings, adjusting to new situations. That, I suppose, is in the blood. In all of my travels, women have helped me, with actual loans, places to stay, a shoulder to cry on when affairs or a marriage went wrong, and just plain good company. In each of my books I have dealt with women's money problems as well as problems with husbands/ lovers and children, again not necessarily by design but because those problems have influenced my life and I see how much they impact the lives of other women. So, in all of my books there are strong and not-so-strong women, children, people of other races and classes and, I dare to hope, a sense of humor that binds the whole recipe and makes it rise like a cake mixed with the right amount of baking powder and love.
- Dawn, Sheila, and Gaynor each have their own attitude toward leaving home and going abroad. How are their positions different or alike? What do you think your own would be?
- Why do the Australian women find American men appealing? How do they view America and why do they choose their particular husbands? How do their assumptions bear out over time?
- When we meet Gaynor, she is already living something of a double life. What is the story she tells others, and how does it change the way she feels about herself?
- So much of Sheila's, Dawn's, and Gaynor's experiences in America are informed by the expectations they bring with them about what life abroad will be like. How do their fantasies limit or inspire them?
- The Australian women who come to the United States refer to themselves as "war brides." What does this term mean to them? How does peacetime impact their relationships?
- On the ship, Mavis Slocum is a gossip. What role does she play in the story after the war brides have settled in to their respective homes? Is there more to her than initially meets the eye?
- War Brides deals with a particular slice of world history. What are some similarities or parallels between that time and our own? Could these stories have taken place today?
- What does the book tell the reader about marriage in the postwar era? What did men and women expect of one another? How has society changed since the 1950s?
- The kindness of strangers is integral to the brides' survival in America. Who are the strangers who help them, and why?
- Torn between her nursing education and an unexpected pregnancy, Sheila must make a pivotal decision about her family. What does she decide and how do her actions affect her? What does Dawn do to help her, and what does Dawn think about the situation?
- In the end, Sheila, Dawn, and Gaynor are in very different places. How have they changed? What do you predict happens next for them?