Imagine this: you have access to the diaries of your mother or father: Windows into your family’s past. Snapshots of moments of history.
What would this process be like? To sift through documents, to piece together a life — and, ultimately, your own family history? Susan Morrison, the blogger and author at Home Front Girl Diary, has this very story to tell.
The book Home Front Girl brings her mother’s diaries — penned as a teenager from 1937 to 1943 — to life. Her website and blog, created to complement her mother’s book, weaves personal, family, and world history and allows Susan to interact with her mother (now passed away) in an intimate, creative way.
We chatted with Susan about her project, how she uses her WordPress.com site to promote her book, and her blogging and research advice to writers, historians, and memoirists.
Tell us about the interesting story behind your site.
Home Front Girl Diary provides information and personal stories related to my mom’s diary. Joan Wehlen Morrison, who was born in 1922, became an oral historian, published two books of oral history, and taught at the New School in New York City. After her death in 2010, I found her diaries she had written as a teenager from 1937 to 1943, starting when she was 14 years old.
The diaries have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. I edited those journals. My contract with Chicago Review Press included a stipulation that I create a website for the book, and I’d never done that before. As a medievalist in my “real life,” technology beyond a piece of vellum and a quill pen is a bit daunting, but I wanted to make the site appealing and, most of all, useful for students of World War II and my mom’s diaries.
What was it like reading and transcribing your mother’s diaries?
Well, it was very emotional. She and I were best friends; she and my dad had been married almost 67 years, and he died two months after her death. So, I was in a very low place.
Her diaries were such a gift. They gave me access to her voice — the strong, young voice of the woman I so love. And her humor she had as a mature woman was already there in her teenage persona. Not many people get to know their moms as teenagers — I did, and it has been a remarkable blessing and journey for me. Reading the journals helped me emotionally and transcribing them helped heal my sadness.
You sifted through a lot of material for Home Front Girl. How did you tackle the process?
I read the journals twice through. Three journals exist out of what seem to have been six original ones. Missing are the first and last, plus one from September 1939 to November 1940. Fortunately, I found her poetry and creative writing journals, as well as her college notebooks filled with personal writing.
After reading the journals, I used Post-its to mark the pages to transcribe. The material I was most interested in included references to World War II and politics; romance (before she met my dad!); nature; the meaning of life, God, and philosophy; and her own hopes of becoming a writer. I used the web to confirm dates — for example, she may have noted “Friday, April 17, 1941″ when she meant the 18th. I corrected tiny errors like that.
While I’ve published two scholarly books on the Middle Ages, and a number of articles, I originally planned this to be a self-published family project. But I realized it was too important historically, so sought out — and found — a publisher. Chicago Review Press has a line of young adult history books, so it was the perfect match. They even included my mom’s doodles she’d drawn in the margins of her journal!
Using WordPress.com to promote her book
Susan’s menu at a glance:
- The Book: Examples from the journals.
- The Authors: All about Susan and Joan.
- Resources: Sections of her mom’s diary linked to educational sources, as well as book club questions and a curriculum guide.
- Blog: Contemporary events and news stories, which Susan ties to her mom’s diary.
- Buy the Book: Links to Amazon and other sites.
- Past Appearances: Susan’s readings and signings.
- Fonts: Susan’s fonts match those on the book itself — Gillies Gothic, Futura Condensed Extra Bold, and Futura Extra Bold Condensed. With the Custom Design upgrade, she added fonts from Typekit.
- Header: With design help from her 16-year-old daughter (and Photoshop whiz) Sarah, Susan uploaded a header reminiscent of the book. The cover is displayed on the top left, further unifying the site with the book.
- Background: Susan uses a very light cream shade (#f7f3ed) — clean and simple, making her content the focus.
- Menu: The menu includes seven tabs, some with sub-menus (or dropdown-style menus).
Tell us about the notable pages on your site.
In the resources section, I link sections of my mom’s diary to educational and scholarly sources. I want students of any age to be able to see “historical” documents alongside my mom’s interpretation of events. For example, she describes hearing about the Hindenburg catching fire in 1937; I quote her passage and link to the actual radio report. Or, she’d written about a newsreel she saw, and I found it. So you can read her passage and then see the newsreel.
The blog is an ongoing project. Here, I tie contemporary events and news stories to my mom’s diary. For example, when the meteor struck over Siberia in February 2013, I remembered how my grandfather, Werner Wehlen — Joan’s dad — had seen the asteroid that struck Siberia in 1908. I tied these together in a post, along with Joan’s commentary in January 1939 on the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity: the death of her best friend’s father, the end of the Spanish Civil War, the ongoing war between China and Japan, and the Chilean earthquake that killed thousands.
Tell us how you customized the Liquorice theme to make your site your own.
I chose WordPress.com since friends had said it was ideal for a neophyte like me. Also, since my mom’s diaries were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I wanted the site to look vintage or retro, and Liquorice was the perfect match. (The sidebar on the left notes how Susan customizes Liquorice.)
I also belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and two wonderful women, Kirsten Cappy and Samantha Clark, helped me streamline my site. Samantha suggested not having too many items on my custom menu and recommended one clean line across the home page.
Your work weaves history, research, memoir, and personal history — what have you learned from this project that you’d like to pass on to other writers?
I’ve met so many people with similar projects. They may have a group of letters a parent or grandparent wrote, or a journal, or even a cookbook from the early part of the 20th century a grandparent wrote out by hand. You can transcribe these items and self-publish, seek out a publisher, or make them available on the internet for your family — and the world. I recommend transcribing family documents; you can have a hard copy, then make copies for your family. Or, you can make a site for your family’s history, and contextualize primary documents historically through links and include family photos.
I’ve been asked: what if a family document has “unpleasant” material in it? You have to be cautious: you don’t want cause a ruckus in your family — or even get sued. Keep materials safe — in a safety deposit box, for example — for future generations to deal with once the parties of concern have passed away. And keep papers in a dry, environmentally secure place — not too hot or cold — and free from paper-eating pests!
Finally, the story of a document is at least two-fold: One, it’s the story of the original writer of the document. Two, it’s also the story of the person putting the project together. So, be sure to include your story in your project.
What’s one piece of advice for authors using WordPress.com as their online home?
WordPress.com allows you to “build a draft” of a site, so try out different themes. I showed the themes I was toying with to my kids for feedback — after all, the project was a young adult history book, so I wanted it to appeal to their age group. The book has also gotten attention from older folks who lived through World War II, or whose parents have. Ultimately, I wanted the design to be clean, easy and logical to follow, with a “vintage” look. I hope I’ve succeeded!
Thanks so much, Susan, for chatting with us!
Poke around Susan’s site, Home Front Girl Diary, for more.
A very interesting article! I am so glad to know about her site and will definitely visit her. I can certainly relate to her experiences, having published one small book and begun working on a larger one concerning my dad’s WWII experiences — based on his memories and his myriads of stories. I wish her great success with both the book and her blog.
Sounds like a wonderful project. Congratulations. And thanks for sharing your WordPress ideas with us neophytes!!
A wonderful post! Coincidentally, Carmela, my mate, was looking through a ‘baby book’ my mother kept for the first five or six years of my life. A wonderful enlightening experience for us both — a living journal.
Bravo! Well done. :-D
I’ve kept a diary since I was 8 years old (now 24 years old) and I often wonder what will happen to my diaries or who will read my most intimate thoughts/experiences in life. Sounds like a great book.
I look forward to reading Home Front Girl. Though it is non-fiction I am reminded by the title and cover of my novel, For Thou Art With Me (2005), a WW II flashback story centered around Class of 42 girl.
Thank you for this! My mom is turning 90 & grew up in the same era. I look forward to reading the book & maybe giving a copy to my mom for her 90th birthday in August.
I wonder if people will be able to read my diaries when I am long gone…that said the book Home Front Girl sounds like a bloody wonderful book.
What a marvelous project! I look forward to reading your book. A few nights ago, I watch PBS Masterpiece Theatre: The Diary of Anne Frank. I had read the book more than once in my earlier years, but seeing the film had a profound impact on me. Thank God, she wrote that journal. We are able to “live” her experiences and better understand the life of a Jewish teenage girl in hiding during WWII. Your mother’s diaries offer the American perspective of this horrific era. Thank you for your very important work!
Dear Ms. Morrison: I very much enjoyed reading of the process you used to turn your mother’s journals into a documentary of a young woman growing up in wartime America. I am not without writing skill, but when it comes to family history, our family has a historian and archivist who has been at the task for many years. I intend to use the history of your endeavor to prompt his writing of our history before any more memories are consigned to the dust of time. Even the story of your creation of “Home Front Girl” was a piece of inspiration to me. I’m going to see if I can figure out how to forward my Email from Word Press to him in Morris, Illinois, the sort of family seat of my maternal history. Many thanks for the inspiration… (thehelpmate.org) Robert Clayton Visconti
A very interesting and informative post!
I wish Susan all the best with her book. My site has been and will continue to be a tribute to my father and the 11th Airborne he served with in WWII.
I loved this. It sounds so intriguing. I hope that I’ll be able to read this book sometime. :D
This is wonderful. I also love my Mom’s notes, recipes and family stories. I am telling them through my blog respectyourfood.me. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much for all your comments! I certainly hope this inspires others to start or finish up comparable projects about their family history. My mom was an oral historian and believed everyone has a story–sometimes they just don’t know what it is yet! But working through family documents, photos, diaries, journals, etc. can really be a way to shed light on real history–what everyday people feel and experience! And I have kept a diary since I was 15–some of it is so boring–when I ate breakfast and so on. But I hope some is interesting–like when I lived in the former East Germany. Good luck with all your projects and thanks for the contact! :-)
Reblogged this on Alexis Kostun and commented:
The uptick in men and women sharing either their own diaries from a young age or the diaries of their relatives is amazing. A snapshot into (your/our) past can be such a fantastic way to gain perspective about the things that seem overwhelming on a daily basis. Check Cheri’s post out!
Thanks all! I’ll certainly keep you posted on future publications (hope there are some!). And I agree about diaries being such a vital source of information to find out perspectives of lives we don’t usually imagine. It’s a gift when such a document can be shared!
This was very interesting! I’ll have to check out the book! It is such a blessing that she was able to write those journals and preserve and keep the ones you have so you could have this opportunity!
I’ve been journaling for over 40 years…and often wanted to compile portions of my journey into a book. I’m sure this is a wonderful read. :) Anita
It is amazing the journals still exist–my folks moved around a lot in the war years and I can only imagine they left them at my grandparents’ house for the duration. As for the comparison with Anne Frank, multiple reviews have made that connection. If you do teach them together, let me know what you discover, please!
I have just recently published “A Countess In Limbo” diaries of my great aunt Countess Olga Hendrikoff Diaries in War and Revolution. These diaries were found in an old trunk and translated from the original Russian and French. It is gratifying to know that so many like you are discovering these valuable historical documents.
Wow…quite sad, however I do wish my parents were together a quarter of that time. It was tough growing up with one parent, always working. My daughter is four now, and lives with her mom up in Washington. I am a Marine currently on active duty and am constantly gone, so I envy that relationship. Great post Cheri!
What a great — and brave — project to embark on. I am very interested in the various forms that past stories and memoirs take in the present. Admittedly, the thought of anyone reading my teenage diaries terrifies me, and I have an agreement with my partner and close friends that shall I pass before them, they burn them!
Willa Cather’s letters have just been published–and she had specifically requested that they not be! And of course Kafka’s work was saved–even though some of the texts he wanted destroyed. I think if you don’t want them kept for posterity, you have to destroy them yourself! :-) As for being on active duty, I am sure if you write your daughter, she’ll love the letters–now and in the future! There’s something about a tangible letter or diary that makes it all the more amazing! And old letters and diaries are valuable–you never know what might be discovered in them! Thoreau’s writing on botany is helping scientists today figure out about climate change patterns–some plants that budded in May in the 19th century now bud in April! And we only have that information because he was so meticulous about writing these observations down.
Oh my goodness, I am so excited to have found your site. Our stories are similar in that I have a wordpress.com site dedicated to helping others research their family history. My Mom also was our family genealogist and she helped me research my grandmother’s story for 12 years. It begins in 1904 in Indian Territory (pre-Oklahoma’s statehood). How I wish I had my grandmother’s journals to hear her story as she knew it. Instead I had to piece together what I did know and fill in what I didn’t with well-studied historical fiction. My Mom passed away in December 2012 only 3 months after my book was published. I can’t wait to read your book. Sounds so similar–my Mom was also born in 1922. Anyway, thought I’d drop you a note.
Debi Gray Walter
wow! what an opportunity! i have a keen interest in psychology and i would love an opportunity to develope an insight like that! to see how some one had lived their life and the effect of the worlds history on the way their life and personality had developed!! i wish you all the luck, i shall be buying the book!
Wow! Thanks so much for your responses! I’m glad my story can help. I really want to encourage others to work on similar projects–that’s so fascinating, Debi, that your mom was born the same year as mine and you worked on a similar project. And I hope, Stephanie, you like the book!
Fascinating! I am also writing a young adult book based on my mother’s memories from WWII. She was living in Amsterdam. I also am trying to tie my blog to some educational material – e.g. Wikipedia entries to explain some of the historical context. The book is plodding along and I am finding the research process quite amazing.
This was fascinating. I’ve assumed the care of my mother’s diaries and papers after her death in January.
What does that entail?
My mother passed in Feb. and I brought her papers home but not much more was required. What am I missing?
I am getting set to chronicle the lives and times of my huge African family and it all seems so daunting! I think you have given me an idea on where to begin…from the myriads of photos that i have collected for the family over the years. I will also solicit more from my extended family. The photos seem to tell a story and if I can get those organized I believe I will have a fascinating story to tell. Thank you for the inspiration and what you did in the case of your mum is indeed a labor of love!
NICE., :D like this…