Joan Wehlen Morrison’s journal from 1937 (age 14) to 1943 (age 20) “allows us to eavesdrop on what everyday Americans thought and felt about” the years before and during World War II.
I’m not so sure how “everyday” Miss Wehlen was. She was, first of all, a prolific writer of poetry and essays and journal entries, of which only a selection are represented in this compilation. Joan was an intelligent young lady and quite aware of political and current events, much more so, I believe, than I was at her age. “As early as 1937, Joan believe[d] that the year 1940 will be a decisive year in history.” She was a pacifist, daughter of a “working class Swedish immigrant with socialist political convictions.” And, finally, she was a Catholic, who wove “personal reflections on love, nature, and God with commentary on contemporary political events.”
Some of her more insightful entries:
Thursday, September 29, 1938
Well—our mythical “peace” is again floating over the land of Europe while four statesmen pretend to come to an agreement. The headline says, “War Averted”—but I know—it should say “War Postponed”—I know.
Sunday, February 5, 1939
I have found beauty in color and line and life and the shadows our little red lamp makes . . . I shall not forget life even if I lose it. It is a lovely world: the sky is blue and the snow is melting and I can hear the Earth expanding. Spring only comes once when you’re 16. I must keep my eyes open for it or I shall miss it in the rush.
Wednesday, December 18, 1940
Oh, world—the years so quickly gone—all the nice boys with the nice shadows in their faces . . . the war could kill them all—
Sunday, December 7, 1941
Well, Baby, it’s come, what we always knew would come, what we never quite believed in. And deathly calm all about it. No people in noisy excited little clusters on the streets. Only silent faces on the streetcars and laughing ones in windows. No excitement. Only it’s come. I hardly knew it, never believed in it. . . . Today, Japan declared war on the United States. She bombed Pearl Harbor and the Philippines while her diplomats were talking peace to Roosevelt. This afternoon at 2:30. My God, we never knew! We were drying dishes out at Evelyn’s place, and I churned butter and went for the well water with Ruth like Jack and Jill. . . . And the earth was turning and it had happened.
Tuesday, January 20, 1942
Mr. Benet was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual–not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older are written here to remind us. . . . I rather like the idea of a social archeologist pawing over my relics.
So we readers are transformed into “social archeologists,” who read Miss Wehlen’s “relics” and ponder what it was like to grow up in such a time. I was in high school during the Vietnam War, but I doubt my diary, if I had one, would be nearly so interesting or insightful as Joan Wehlen’s is.
She calls Winston Churchill “Pigface”; she was apparently not a fan.