The War Bride’s Scrapbook is a scrapbook kept by a young bride while her husband fighting overseas. What inspired you to make a WWII era scrapbook?
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.
How did you go about creating Lila’s scrapbook?
The War Bride’s Scrapbook turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming undertaking than I originally imagined. I spent four years collecting WWII ephemera and doing research. I was fortunate to interview several WWII veterans including combat engineers and the author James Salter. Many friends shared caches of their parents WWII letters, and I researched 291 Combat Engineer records at the National Archives. I went to WWII reenactments and befriended combat engineer reenactors who educated me about supplies and equipment used in the European Theatre. My husband and I toured sites visited by US combat engineers including Normandy. I interviewed orthopedic surgeons and trauma doctors about Perry’s war wound and recovery.
Where’d you find all this stuff?
A lot of oddball places. A retired couple down the road from me in Charlottesville had built an entire Home Front museum in the basement of their ranch house and lent me things from their collection, such as the French phrasebook. One of my favorite vintage stores is Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicsville, Va. which has over one million pieces of ephemera. There is a huge military flea market at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment. (Yes, such an event really happens—in January in the Pennsylvania woods!) And I was almost always able to track down something I needed on eBay—from a knitting pattern for GI sweaters to 1946 Chevy manual. I got so many packages my mailman started to complain.
The ending takes an unexpected twist. Did you always know it would end that way?
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.
What are you working on now?
An illustrated history of dogs in American culture. I’ve already found some treasures at vintage stores and, of course, on eBay. A Simplicity pattern for plaid dog coats, postcards of dog cemeteries, publicity stills of Rin Tin Tin performing on the radio.