Dianne's Reviews > Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49

Nella Last's War by Nella Last
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's review
Aug 12, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010
Read in August, 2010

I don't know why I love memoirs so much. It doesn't seem quite right that I should get so much enjoyment out of reading other people's diaries. I don't think I'll pursue that line of thought any further though because, well, just because. This is a diary and I loved it. And it turns out, she had a talent for writing, one more reason why you'll enjoy reading it.

It is the diary of an ordinary housewife, Nella Last, in a small town in England, and it covers the time period between September 1939 and August 1945. Nella was 49 when the war started. She had a husband and two sons, one of whom had already left home to embark on a career. The younger son joined the armed services and was in uniform for the duration of the war. Nella's diary is full of stories about her family, her marriage, her volunteer work and the difficulties of day to day life with blackout curtains, rationing and enemy bombers flying overhead.

There are numerous movies out there that tell us what war is like from the viewpoint of the soldiers fighting it; this book shows us what it's like for regular people trying to carry on a life while war rages around them. Gas for recreational use was cut off and they couldn't go anywhere except by bus. Rationing became severe in the last years of the war, so they tried to grow things like onions and tomatoes that they couldn't get at a grocery store. Nella tore up the lawn to keep hens so they would have eggs.

For months at a time air raid sirens would sound in the night and bombers would drop their deadly loads on Nella's town, sometimes on her street. At times they slept in their clothes so they could get to their shelter quickly if need be and sometimes they even went to bed in the shelter. I often wonder how they could keep going with life the way it was, but I guess it's what we all do. We say we can't take anymore, then we put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.

Her soldier son, Cliff, was on her mind all the time. She didn't always know where he was and long periods of time would go by in which she wouldn't hear from him. She wrote regularly but had no way of knowing if he was receiving her letters.

Nella was a creative woman and managed to get everyone fed and looked after with very little money or access to fresh food. It was both interesting and inspiring to learn some of the economies she practiced and how she made do with what she had. She used those skills in several volunteer services helping to raise money for prisoners-of-war boxes and providing food and endless cups of tea for tired, lonely soldiers .

In some ways Nella found herself during those awful years. She became more independent, less afraid of speaking her mind. She knew she was changing and was glad of it, even when her husband and sons were not. This was the second war for her; her children were babies during the first war. I hadn't thought of it before, but there were only 21 years between the end of the first world war and the start of the second. Middle aged people around the world were enduring their second round of hell. Nella has a lot to teach us about perseverance. I admire her and her work ethic, her sense of humor and her loyalty to her family. She was always a strong woman, but it took the war to help her realize it. I've seen another book called Nella Last's Peace, which takes place in the years immediately following WWll. I hope I'll be able to find it; I'd love to read about how they gathered up the pieces of their lives and tried to make something normal from them again.

The story isn't all hardship and grief. There are funny things such as happen in every normal day to day life. People change and grow and times marches on even during war years. Laughter is engaged in where ever it can be found and it's value is understood.

I was continually struck by the way ordinary things seeped into war and how war seeped into ordinary things. Like in the following passage: "Another disturbed night. The guns and bombs were so bad on Merseyside that our windows and doors rattled! I called in at the grocer's to see if any marmalade had come in. I prefer it to jam..." Bombs and marmalade had become equally commonplace and required no pause or change in direction for the conversation.

I recommend Nella Last's War to everyone. It's an eyeopener, a fascinating historical account and overall a great read.
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