Apr 5, 2010

Stranger in the House by Julie Summers

Stranger in the House by Julie Summers

In the months that followed the end of the Second World War, over four million British soldiers were demobilised and returned to their homes. Some of these men had only seen their families sporadically during the war years; others not at all. The majority of them had trouble returning to a changed world, readjusting to civilian life, and enduring the long-lasting traumas of the war. Though the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” wasn’t coined until the 1960’s, at this time there was a better understanding of the psychological scars left by such a horrifying experience than there had been after WW1. Still, there were many problems that remained undiscussed, and many stories that remained untold.

But Stranger in the House doesn’t focus on the demobilised soldiers themselves, though it fully acknowledges their difficulties. Instead, it focuses on their mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, granddaughters: on the women in their lives, many of whom had endured horrors of their own, and who suddenly found themselves face to face with a loved one they no longer recognized. When the men’s war ended, theirs was just about to begin.

Stranger in the House is one of the most powerful, personal and moving history books I have ever encountered. Julie Summers based her research on diaries, letters and interviews, so a lot of the time we actually hear these woman’s voices, or at least the testimonies of their descendants. This gives the book a very intimate feel, which is something I really appreciated. Stranger in the House is divided into several sections, titled “The Wife’s Tale”, “The Mother’s Tale”, “The Daughter’s Tale”, “The Granddaughter’s Tale”, etc., each including the stories of several women and covering a very wide range of emotional experiences.

As the title suggests, Stranger in the House mainly focuses on how the war eroded relationships: often it opened a gulf so wide between the returned soldiers and their families that took years or even a whole lifetime to cross. Other times, this gulf was never crossed at all. Part of the problem was that many of these women, who had endured bombings, food rationings, and constant anxiety on behalf of their loved ones, felt that their experiences were secondary when compared to direct combat or prisoner’s camps. I wish we didn’t live in a world that compared tragedies and silenced those deemed less worthy. I wish we were better at acknowledging that suffering, courage and endurance come in many shapes. I was very moved by the fact that many of the women Julie Summers interviewed said they had never been asked these questions before; that they had waited their whole lives to feel that they had the right to have a voice.

Granted, these women made the decision to remain silent about their experiences, but there’s a context for that choice. The following quote is a perfect example of what I mean:
‘Mum was unable to share “her” war with dad. Not that he wasn’t interested, I’m sure he would have been, but more that she would not have wanted him to think that she had had a bad time of time. As she used to say, “How could I have done that? His war was so much worse than anything I’d experienced.” How hard must that have been for her?’
Reading this made me so sad. I imagine that these women felt that all their feelings of estrangement and dissatisfaction were forbidden – they were supposed to be grateful for all their men had sacrificed, and so if they couldn’t communicate properly after the war, they didn’t really have the right to complain about it.

Julie Summers acknowledges these women’s feelings and tells their stories with incredible compassion and kindness. I was particularly interested in the chapter about love and sex during the war. Many married women had affairs, and many unmarried ones went further than they would have gone in different circumstances. The result was the birth of more illegitimate children than ever before – which led to situations such as men who hadn’t been home for four years returning and discovering a two-year-old child. Can you imagine how painful that must have been for everyone involved? But these were desperate circumstances, and as one woman put it, “by this stage in the war love was just about the only thing left unrationed.” On the bright side, Summers says that the stigma associated to unmarried mothers had lessened by the end of the war, simply because there were so many of them.

There were also plenty of legitimate children who had never met their fathers, either because they had been conceived at the beginning of the war or while their fathers were home briefly on leave, or because they were babies when the men left home. Reintroducing a man these children only knew from photographs into their lives was often not without its complications.

Stranger in the House covers so many different kinds of experiences that I feel like I could sit here all day talking about it. For example, there was a chapter on Far East prisoners of war, men who endured torture, starvation and illness, and most of whom had chronicle health problems after they were released from their captivity. This chapter made me realise how little I know about the Pacific side of WW2, and vow to do something about it soon. Also, it saddened me to read that these men and their families often remain prejudiced against the Japanese for most of their lives. But fortunately that seems to be dying out.

Of course, not all these stories are gloomy. Some of the men readjusted just fine, and their families didn’t have a particularly hard time. Unsurprisingly, the key to a positive experience seems to have been communication. Julie Summers is careful not to generalise or draw conclusions from what is, after all, anecdotal evidence, but the patterns speak for themselves. The more these men and women talked honestly about what they had been through, the easier things became.

One final note: it also saddened me to realise that many of the women Julie Summers was writing about, who had been adults at the time of the war, had died in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. This only makes sense, I know, but doesn’t it upset you to think that the witnesses of WW2 are dying out? I hope that we have asked them all the questions we could ask. I know that there are detailed records of what happened, but there’s something comforting about having a living link to the past.

Also, the diary and letter excerpts Julie Summers quoted made me want to seek some out and read them. Many are at the Imperial War Museum and haven’t been published, but I know that there must be plenty of books out there that focus on the domestic, everyday side of the war. Persephones’ Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson is one; does anyone know of any others?

I’d wholeheartedly recommend Stranger in the House to fans of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, of Henrietta’s War, and of the many Persephone books that deal with WW2 – to anyone interested in the personal impact of large historical events, really, as well as in women’s history. It’s a compassionate, exquisitely researched and memorable book.

Favourite bits:
There are many tales of the reactions of young children to their fathers coming back. Some hint at the tension that lay beneath the surface only to bubble up again and again; others convey the bewilderment of children at having a man introduced, often without ceremony, into their lives, or worse still, into their mother’s bed. ‘Where is Daddy going to live when he comes home?’ asked one six-year-old, who had never seen his father in his living memory. ‘Well, he’ll be living at home, won’t he?’ replied his wiser older sister, who had been four years old when their father left. ‘But where is he doing to sleep?’ the younger boy insisted. ‘Why in Mummy’s bed of course!’ his sister said. With this the six-year-old ran out of the room crying loudly, ‘But that’s where I sleep! I don’t want him in my bed.’

The greatest difficulty, Frances admitted, was that neither of them really understood what the other had been through during their five years of separation. How could she really have any knowledge of what it must have been like to be locked up in a German prisoner of war camp with hundreds of other men, crammed together with almost no privacy and little space for physical activity? He, in turn, she believed, had no comprehension of what she had been through during those five years. He had no knowledge of the Wrens or the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service)—what was that all about? he wondered. And she came to realise that this gulf of understanding could not be crossed.

For women who had worked during the war readjustment to the post-war era was difficult. New-found independence, both financial and emotional, had an impact on relationships and created expectations that could not always be fulfilled. Thousands of women became wives of men who, damaged by their experiences, needed attention and patience for years after the war. For these women the war did not end in 1945. For some it only ended with the death of the man in their care.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. What a fantastic review - you've really sold this reading experience to me and I've added the book to my wish list. I'm thinking of a trip to visit the Imperial War Museum in London this summer and this would fit in very well with that experience.

  2. It is sad that all the witnesses to WO2 are dying out: like you said you can only hope we've asked them everything we wanted to ask. & I think especially the experiences of women might have been forgotten for a long time.

    This sounds like a fascinating, if sad, read. I'd really like to read it.

  3. I'm reading books on war now and this one is perfect! I'm going to add it on to my list of to-reads. There are many parts in this book that I'm interested in, but your mention of the author's take on the women’s feelings and their stories got me even more interested in the book. The ones I've read so far were written by men, so this should be a good addition to my personal library. Thanks for the comprehensive review, Ana!

  4. This sounds like a great book to add to my collection of non-fiction ww2 books.

    You might want to try Don't you know there's a War on? Voice from the Home Front by Jonathan Croall and Out of Harm's Way: The Wartime Evacuation of Children from Britain by Jessica Mann. Both are based on letters and interviews.

    If you want fiction I recommend Back Home by Micelle Magorian. It deals with Rusty who returns to England after having been evacuated to the US during the war. It also deals with her parents inability to get their marriage to work after having been separated. I also enjoyed two of her other works set during ww2 Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song. These three books are all YA books.

  5. That sounds like such a fascinating book! The thought that some traumatic experiences are rated less noteworthy than other is terrible. I also hope that the dying of WWII witnesses does not mean that the vivid warning of what war does will die with them.

    I´ve read Water´s Night Watch and found it to be an amazing read.

  6. Midway through reading your review, I added Stranger in the House to my wish list. By the end, I wanted to hit the 'buy now' button. You are bad for my book budget, Ana! This is an outstanding review.

  7. Oh Ana, yet another incredible-sounding book that I'd never heard of! And that I am going to get my hands on for sure. Annie and I are deep into WWII right now...and this sounds like a perfect addition to our reading as we leave the war years themselves. Thank you! Yet again.

  8. I usually don't read books on war, but you made this one sound really engaging! Thanks for your great review!

  9. Thanks for this great review... this book sounds like a really beautiful exploration of what women went through, which, as you say, hasn't had a great deal of exploration. I think I shall go and seek this out :) Thanks.

  10. This is an amazing review, and a topic that is so interesting to me. So much of WW2 fiction I don't appreciate, but this aspect I think I really would. There is a hint of this in The Outcast that I was really intrigued by. Thank you so much. I'll definitely be reading this one.

  11. I am so used to reading about WWII from a Jewish perspective that this books sounds so new and exciting to me. Honestly that's kind of embarrassing; it's like I've been ignoring everyone else in the war but the Jewish population. This is going right on the wish list.

  12. It's interesting that you mention the prejudice against the Japanese. My grandmother was scared for me the whole time I was there and could never understand my love for the place.
    At first I was kind of annoyed by that, but I came to realize I hadn't had her experience of growing up when Peal Harbor happened or the war. And while I never think prejudice is right it is more understandable at times than others. Likewise, I certainly experienced it from some older Japanese while I was there. And I think that war has that sort of huge divisive effect, it's a big hurt that might not ever be right in the lifetimes of those who have endured it.
    Sounds like a very interesting book, though!

  13. This is a book I probably wouldn't have picked up before, but you have totally and completely made me want to read it. It sounds amazing and reminds me of The Night Watch, which I absolutely loved, but the non-fiction side of it. Going to get my hands on this one.

  14. I've read that a lot of military marriages break up for just this reason. After the long separations, the couples feel like they really don't know each other anymore. This sounds like a very powerful book.

  15. This looks amazing. I always think it's terribly sad when there are no more surviving people who can bear witness to major historic events. I've said before that it's the day-to-day stuff that interests me most about history, and I hate the idea of so many of those stories being lost.

    Did you ever read Michelle Magorian's Back Home? It's about a girl who was evacuated to America during World War II and she returns to England after the war ends. So it's her trying to deal with an unfamiliar country and a mother who's essentially a stranger to her, and then her father comes home from war expecting his wife and daughter to be all submissive again. I remember quite liking it.

  16. Great review! I'm going to have to see if my library carries this book. The more I read about WWII, the more I want to know, and the sadder I feel that the survivors are almost all gone.

    I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  17. This sounds like a great read. I love this kind of thing.

  18. I thought I read about this book previously, but I hadn't. I read about "Demobbed: Coming Home After WWII." Which, I think, would be a really good companion piece for you to read for this one!

    I know a lot of WWII survivors are dying. But I think that's why war keeps happening, really. The people who survive it pass away, and then people generally forget (or don't know) how horrible the experience is. So it happens again. And again. And again. People say they'll "never forget the horrors." But just because one PERSON won't ever forget, that sadly doesn't mean that HUMANITY won't forget. Which we do, all the time. We don't have that collective consciousness and memory to let things like that live on.

  19. The end of this particular war must have been so complicated for women to negotiate.Not only did they have to readjust to men coming home, but they had to give up a lot of independence and all without making any gesture to the conflicted feelings they were having because of how awfully their culture would have reacted to women who 'weren't happy' that the men were home.

  20. What a great idea for a history book.

    As for the survivors of WWII dying out, I don't think we'll ever be able to really understand what they went through no matter how many questions we ask. But hopefully books about it will keep the memory of it alive enough that it will never happen again.

  21. What a unique book! I'm sure it's very emotional to read about this kind of stuff, but it also sounds very interesting. Excellent review - I'll be looking out for this.

  22. This one sounds like a great book and one that I really would like to read!

  23. This sounds like a fascinating book and I am not sure I have ever come across anything like it before. The tales these women tell must be heartbreaking and I can't imagine having to live in their shoes. Stories like this must have been common during that period of history, but I think it would make for very educational and interesting reading. I bet the women whose husbands are at war now might find they have much in common with these voices of the past. Excellent review, the quotes you chose were awesome as well!

  24. This is still a real problem for many families who have a member go to war. I have a friend who dated a girl for six, maybe even 12 months before going to Iraq. He was there over a year and they stayed together long-distance. But they broke up within a few weeks of his return. He tells me that even people who have been married for years find it awkward when one of them returns from war. I think that the military (at least in the U.S.) recognizes this more and prepares people for returning home, as part of their effort to treat PTSD.

  25. This sounds fascinating. I'm adding it to my list!

    Two other war-time and post-war diaries you might want to look into are Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace. I haven't read them myself, but the diaries are quoted extensively in David Kynaston's Family Britain and those quotes were a highlight of the book. And I've heard good things about them from people who have read them.

  26. Your review makes me want to rush out and get this book. :)

  27. I have to get this book! Over here, of course, the experience was much the same, and we also have the added one of what is termed the 'war brides'. These women would marry Canadian, US, or other troops stations in the UK for training during WW2, and then when the war ended, they would board the ships and come to their new lives in a new country, with a man they barely new and to families they'd never met. I always think of these women as incredibly brave, and the book you reviewed reminds me that no matter where, women everywhere had to deal also with the scars in their men from the war, as well as their own war experiences. you're right, we have heard very little from women over here too about what they it was like after. I'll be getting this book! thanks for the review :-) and hope you had a happy Easter, my friend!

  28. This review just made me so sad. Not because of your review but because of the subject matter of the book. And I'll definitely be getting this one, by the way. But it's an issue that I've always cared a lot about because you're so right! These women (and men, these days) are expected to put on a smile when "their man" comes home and pretend to be so happy when the reality is that their world has been forever changed. Soldiers come back as different people, I know that from working with trauma patients at the hospital. Not to mention the family at home that's changed during that time. War is just so sad, really :( So destructive in every way. But I won't get all political on your blog.

    I also completely agree with your sentiment of hoping that we've asked all the questions we can of our WWII folk. My grandma loves to tell stories of living during the war time. So many members of my family just ignore her or walk away, but I've always been so close to her. She's 87 and I cherish those stories. I could sit next to her and listen to her talk about her teenage years and her twenties for hours. I'll really miss those talks one day.

    Thanks for this post Ana :)

  29. It must have been so hard for a lot of ordinary people unable to speak of their experiences to the person they share their lives with. We often forget that even after the war has ended, it still lives on inside each person. How do you get over such an event? I'd heard of this book but didn't realise it had excerpts of primary sources. I'm definitely interested. And I loved The Night Watch.

    I remember speaking to my Japanese grandparents about their experiences of WWII as part of my GCSE history project years ago and although it brought back tough memories (especially those that weren't in line with the official versions), I'm glad we did it. It made me see war in a very different light.

  30. I want to read this book!

    The same thing happened with some American soldiers. The women on the home front here didn't experience violence or the same privations as the British women, but there was the same uncrossable gulf of experience. When my mom was growing up, everyone knew the war had "done" something to my grandpa, but there wasn't a name for it. The stories Gran recounts match up with the symptoms PTSD, and she calls it that, now. Strange how a name helps.

    Most American GI's, because they were returning to homes in such far-apart places, never saw their war buddies again after the war. They were expected to put all behind them and dive right into cheery, consumeristic 1950's American family life. As a generation they had been brought up to "be a man," so they did their best.

    Summers is so right that communication is the key. After my grandpa came home from France he spent one afternoon telling my grandma (then his girlfriend) briefly where he had been and what had happened to him in the war, and then *never talked about it again,* except for a few little humorous stories for *60 years!*

    Sixty years later it all came out in a rush when one of his friends (who he'd thought was killed in the war) tracked him down and they compared experiences. It's okay to ask questions now. He let my grandma hang his medals on the wall.

  31. Peta: Thank you! The book actually left me itching to visit the Imperial War Museum, which I missed on my previous visits to London.

    Iris: Sadly they might have been, yes. I'm glad that at least this book was written - and hopefully others too.

    Alice: Yes, I could say the same until very recently. Most war stories are from a male perspective, which makes sense when it comes to direct combat - but what the women endured deserves to be written about too.

    Zee, thank you so so much for the recommendations! I'm particularly interested in the one about evacuated children, as I recently read a novel that dealt with that.

    ifyoucanreadthis: It's terrible, yes, but sadly very common it seems :\ I thought that The Night Watch was AMAZING too - it's my second favourite Waters, right after Fingersmith.

    JoAnn: I apologise for being bad for your book budget, but not for recommending this, as I think you'll find it amazing too :P

    Debi: Yes, I think this would be perfect for home school!

    Andreea: I seem to read a lot of WW2 lit for some reason, even though it always makes me cry my eyes out.

    Elise, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! :)

    Elisabeth, thank you so much! And it sounds like I should pick up The Outcast.

    Trisha, the same was true for me until recently. It was actually Waters' The Night Watch that made me curious about other wartime experiences, particularly domestic/everyday ones.

    Amy: Though the prejudice made me sad, I understood where they were coming from too. I didn't think they were monsters for being racist - like you said, some experiences are just too painful, and I guess the prejudice is a scapegoat that people need to remain sane. They need to hate something or someone for all the pain they suffered. What made me optimistic was that future generations no longer felt that way - like you said, it does take more than a lifetime to heal, but it does go away eventually.

    Lu: Yes, it definitely reminded me a lot of The Night Watch.

    Kathy: Yeah, I imagine that it still happens even today.

    Jenny: That's definitely my favourite side of history too - the everyday details make the "big picture" come alive like nothing else. I haven't read Back Home, but between your recommendation and Zee's I'll definitely have to pick it up!

  32. Anna: Thank you for linking it! I think this is a book you'd really enjoy.

    Katy: So do I :)

    Aarti: Demobbed also sounds amazing - I've added it to my wishlist. And sadly, I think you're on to something :\

    Jodie: Yes, exactly! And the book definitely touches on that.

    Heidenkind: In my most pessimistic days, I think humans are just too stubborn for it to be possible for wars to truly end. But remembering helps, and books help us remember. It's a start.

    Emidy: It is - I found it very moving.

    Staci, I hope you find it as good as I did when and if you pick it up :)

    Zibilee: Yeah, I think they were incredibly common, but because nobody talked about it, everyone thought they were alone :\ It's so sad. And I agree that war experiences today must be quite similar.

    J.T. Oldfield: I'm glad there's at least more awareness now, and that people are prepared. But it must be so difficult still.

    Teresa, I hope you love it as much as I did! And thank you so much for the recommendations.

    Violet, I'm glad to hear it :) I hope you enjoy it!

    Susan: First of all, thank you and likewise! As for the War Brides, this book touched a bit on that too, actually - one of the chapters says that a lot of women fell in love with foreign soldiers who were in the UK and got marrieds after the war. That's a different kind of experiences, but it sounds like it'd take some serious adjustment too.

    Chris: It is :( I don't care if we sound like hippies - wars suck, period. And you know you can get political on my blog anytime :P You've told me about your grandmother a bit before and she sounds like such an amazing lady. I'm glad the two of you are so close. Sadly I never got to know my grandmothers, as one died before I was born and the other when I was 4 :(

    Chasingbawa: It's so hard to imagine overcoming something like this, isn't it? And that's wonderful that you got to have those conversations with your grandparents.

    Trapunto: Having a name really seems to help, doesn't it? I wonder if it's because it makes people feel less alone. If it has a name, it means that more people have experienced. And if it can be identified, perhaps it can be defeated too. What you said about your grandfather was exactly like many of the situations Summers described: one brief conversation, and that was it. Can you imagine holding all of that in?

  33. This book sounds amazing, and I don't know whether this story has ever really been told. Your reviews are always rich and thought-provoking!

  34. I love books centered around WWII and must admit that I haven't read any non-fiction that centers around American soldiers and their families. This one sounds like one that would catch my interest.

  35. I don't often hear about the female experience of WWII unless it's pertaining to women working, or women in the Holocaust. It's odd, but I read a lot of history books and memoirs about the Holocaust, I guess it fascinates me that people can be so cruel, and how quickly racism can accelerate in what should have been a civilized nation.

    As for Stranger In The House, it sounds intriguing and definitely along the lines of the type of history I am interested in.

    You make a good point about WWII survivors dying out. I actually had a conversation about that exact subject with a WWII survivor the other day. We then talked about Iraq, but that is another subject for another day.

  36. Sounds like a remarkable book. I've occasionally see the difficulties families had reuniting mentioned quickly as a background piece in other novels but I love that this whole book deals specifically with it.

  37. This sounds fantastic, Nymeth. I've read quite a bit of books set during WWII but not so much the aftermath and especially nothing like this which focuses a lot on the relationships. Thank you for posting about this one. It's going on my list.

  38. This sounds really good AND my library has it. Yay!


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