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G.I. War Brides, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.

May 18, 2014

G.I. Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.   HarperCollins Publishers Ltd (2013), Paperback, 368 pages

The stories of four women, presumably obtained in oral history interviews, who came to the United States from England as war brides of World War II soldiers.

After World War II, many women from around the world came to the United States as the wives of our returning soldiers. Their stories are fascinating and important, often giving us a particular perspective on this county after the war. Some of their accounts are delightful, and many are full of pain. This book features the stories of four such women. But they and the other war brides deserve better than these authors provide.

What bothered me most about this book was not knowing what it is I was reading. Was the book fiction created by the authors or something I should believe as factual accounts? Whose voices are we encountering? Some will say that such distinctions have blurred and are irrelevant to the telling of good stories. This blurring has contributed to world where people can no longer agree on what is factually true. Failure to identify where a book falls on the fact-fantasy continuum is confusing and dishonest on the part of the authors and the publishers.

A simple statement that the book is based on oral histories in a subtitle or a brief introductory paragraph about the women interviewed could correct the problem. Only in the acknowledgements at the very end of the book do we find mention that much of the material in the book came from oral history interviews, retold and expanded by the authors. That was where I also found the website for the book which included information that would have added value to the book. In fact, I enjoyed some of stories of G.I. brides that were told by others on the site more than I did the book because I knew what I was reading.

I am glad to see an interest in this important group of women, but I would urge those retelling someone else’s first-person story to use some care. Oral histories are wonderful sources and need be collected, but those who do so should be aware of their problems as well as their promise. They give one person’s memory of what was happening. Those memories are valid for what they say about the person remembering, but are not always factually accurate. Those collecting oral histories would do well to read a book or two about the process. The more they hope to have these stories taken seriously by historians, the more they need to keep track of what is their subjects’ perspective and what is their own.

The stories of the four war brides were interesting, at times enjoyable and at other times heart wrenching. The women’s narratives are told in alternating chapters, providing a general chronological narrative overall. Although the structure works in some ways, it is problematic in others. I found it difficult to remember which woman was which and what had already happened to each. In the early chapters, the move to America was a common theme, but as the women and their families aged, they became more like other women in America of that era. There was no attempt to analyze or compare the stories. I was left wondering why these four women were chosen for this book. One of authors seems to be a granddaughter of one the war brides, but that is never clearly and honestly expressed. The website listed, and sold, historical books about the war brides, but there was no other indication of what the authors used to “fill in” the gaps in the women’s stories.

Overall, G.I. Brides could have been a much better book. The stories are good, but a book that does not tell readers what types of book they are reading is inadequate.

I am glad to have received an ebook version of this book for review.


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