I like to say that the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making. As a little girl, I used to pore over my grandmother’s flapper scrapbook. In high school, I started collecting vintage scrapbooks.
My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—that is, just words. My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King. Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.
When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook. And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but an actual one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue. And so I created The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.
Not at all. My father was 4-F because of terrible eyesight and spent the war in San Diego as a Navy Jag throwing drunken sailors in the brig. My parents didn’t get married until 1947. But Lila and Perry’s story was inspired in part by real people and real events.
My last surviving WWII-generation relative, an aunt, dropped out of Vassar at 20 to marry her college boyfriend before he shipped out. She wrote me some very candid emails about how she came to regret her wartime marriage almost immediately but felt economically and socially obligated to stick it out for 20 miserable years.
I had Perry serve with the much-decorated 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The 291st managed to halt a Nazi assault in the Battle of the Bulge by blowing up bridges. It also built the first tactical bridge across the Rhine River.
Almost all the items in the book are original. I collected hundreds of WWII-era publications and objects to create my scrapbook. My office looks like something out of the Hoarders show. The primary sources that I started out with were magazines from 1940-1946. Life and Time provided a weekly timeline of war headlines and everyday life on the home front. Women’s magazines (McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal) were chock full of wartime illustrations, advice columns, fashion spreads, and ads.
I collected boxes of V-mail stationery, picture postcards and telegram paper for Lila’s and Perry’s correspondence. I assembled all the “scraps” that a bride in the 1940’s would glue in a scrapbook: menus, movie tickets, ration stamps, book jackets, train timetables, war bonds, maps, and matchbooks.
I found military memorabilia such as combat engineer manuals, k-ration boxes, uniform patches, and the French phrase book the army handed out to soldiers on their way to the Normandy Beaches (with handy phrases such as “Please don’t shoot me.”)
Some of the most fascinating scrapbooks in my collection are ones kept by wives while their husbands were overseas during WWII. They are an odd combination of touching love letters, cheerful home front memorabilia such as ration stamps, grim war clippings about battles and casualties, and military souvenirs such as dog tags and discharge papers.
These “bride’s scrapbooks” provide an interesting glimpse into the reality of wartime marriages. Many couples had gotten married only a few weeks after they’d met and then were separated for years. Letters were often their only means for getting to know one another and forming an actual relationship.
The scrapbooks kept by war brides are often sweetly hopeful and aspirational. They draw an idealized image of what their marriage and life will be like when their husbands return from war– babies, new houses, new appliances and cars, domestic routines and jobs picked up again.
Most WWII scrapbooks tend to end abruptly in August, 1945 with headlines about the atomic bombs. It seems like the scrapbooks were put away, never to be looked at again until they turned up on eBay. We don’t know what happened when (or if) the husbands returned home after the war.
In The War Bride’s Scrapbook, I’ve tried to write the whole story behind one of these bride’s scrapbooks. Why the bride (Lila Jerome) started to keep it in 1943, why she stopped keeping it in 1945. And what truths her daughters discover about their mother when they find the scrapbook 70 years later.
Most fictional wartime love stories seem to end in one of two ways—a joyful reunion or a tragedy. Based on my research on wartime marriages, the reunions were less dramatic but far more devastating.
I was inspired by James Salter’s description of a reunited wartime couple: What would they be like now…? ..there was the power of all the letters, of being apart, the denied love that reality cannot equal.