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on 26 September 2008
One of Julie Summer's strengths as a biographer is her capacity to allow her subjects to speak for themselves - but at the same time, throughout this fine book, the reader always has a reassuring sense of the author's guiding hand.
These stories of the women so directly affected by the last war are often deeply moving, full of their humanity and strength. The author successfully conveys the complexity of their feelings, the ambivalence felt by many of these women - glad to have their menfolk back home, and yet reluctant to give up the hard-fought-for freedom and independence they had gained during the war years.
The depth and quality of research is never in question, allowing the reader to feel safe in the author's hands. The chapter on the Army Postal Service, for example, and the vital role it played in maintaining morale, was excellent: a dry subject brought vividly to life.
The author's understanding of and empathy with the awfulness of the experiences of some of the returning men is exemplified in the chapter on returning POWs from the Far East: men forever damaged by their horrendous ordeal in Japanese camps. An ordeal that was literally unspeakable - which is to say because of the understood agreement that no-one would mention those lost years afterwards, neither the men, nor their families. That so much further damage was caused to the men and to their families by this inhuman silence is movingly evoked in this section of the book.
My only reservation is that this book feels slightly incomplete - certainly as a social history study. There is a predominance of stories from soldiers serving in the Far East, and particularly those who were unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner; there is also a seeming bias towards returning officers and career soldiers. Perhaps these reflect the author's own areas of expertise - and to be fair, she never does claim this book to offer a representative section of society, nor that it is a comprehensive study of post-war British society.
Finally, I would have to say that this is a hugely readable book - the writing style and presentation is beautifully clear, warm and full of confidence. It was a pleasure to pick up, and a pity to finish it.
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on 1 August 2011
Although war and its aftermath have been around forever, I had the feeling that the things this book described could only have happened at one particular point in history, the middle of the 20th century.
For one, with modern communications it's inconceivable now that a large group of men could be held captive for several years with no hint of where they were or even if they were still alive. For another, it was at this point that women started to have lives outside the home, in the workplace and the professions, which would not have been the case even 20 years earlier. Roles which in most cases they were expected to give up automatically on resuming their true role as housewives on the return of their menfolk.
Apart from one or two boys, the focus is on the women's story, which is understandable, since they were the ones who stayed at home and then had to deal with often very damaged men who returned, often with no understanding of how much the Home Front had changed in the years they were away fighting or in prison.
The stoical self-sacrifice of some of the women is immensely moving. Elizabeth Glassey qualified as a doctor during the war, and rose to become the dedicated head of an obstetrics department at the age of 24. When her fiance returned, after three and a half years as a POW in the Far East, she immediately gave up her post and supported him while he in turn went through his medical studies. Only much later - after seven pregnancies in nine years, just four of which led to surviving children - she became a junior member in her husband's practice.
Even more extraordinary to me was the story of Monica Littleboy, who lost touch with her friend - not even fiance - George in 1939, only for him to search her out when he returned from the Far East in 1945. Although she was involved with another serviceman, she eventually decided - after much agonising - that it was her duty to help George recover some normality by marrying and supporting him, a largely unrewarding task which she carried out until George's death in 2000. I've no idea where women like that come from, but it's heartening to think that there are such people, and we can never know how many men were saved from breakdowns and worse by the loyal and unquestioning support of their wives.
Not that chldren were unaffected. Imagine that you have never seen your father except in a picture, then at the age of 5 or 6 you suddenly meet a stranger who looks totally unlke that picture, who then moves into your life and becomes the centre of the household. Such a child can't be expected to understand the difficulties their parents experience, but they suffer nonetheless. Try this for a laconic comment from one such child about her mother, dealing with her husband's premature death as a result of illness contracted as a FEPOW:
'I would get home from school and find her with her head in the oven and the gas switched on. It was a very difficult time.'
There are many such stories in this book, and what is certain is that there are many thousands more which were never told and now never will be. The quiet heroism of just coping, in some cases for over half a century, has attracted very little attention, and yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that sometimes the greatest heroes of a war end up without either a medal or their name on a memorial.
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on 19 November 2008
When Julie asked me if she could include my parents' story in Stranger in the House I agreed because I felt strongly that my mother's experiences, like those of tens of thousands of other women, deserved our attention. Julie has been sensitive and thorough in her research and she's done a marvellous job of shedding light on this little known aspect of wartime experiences. There is much we can learn from these stories and it is important, I believe, that each contributor is allowed to speak for themselves. My parents and I were in safe hands.
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on 30 January 2012
Coming from a family affected by just the sort of themes covered by this excellent book, I found it very thought provoking and just a little emotional too.

The author has accurately captured the trauma of a husband coming home after many years away to find everything changed and without being sensational describes the challenges that homecoming brought. The feelings of children who had never seen their father before are beautifully described.

Highly recommended.
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on 27 November 2013
What an absolutely tremendous book this is.

This thoroughly researched book deals with the stories of the men who returned from the Second World War, physically and emotionally scarred, and how their loved ones coped with the situation. Most importantly, it deals with the impact upon the children, who were not necessarily fathered by the absent serviceman. Those who were, often found marked dissimilarities between the treatment of their siblings who were born before the war and those who were born after the father's return.

It was a time when many returning servicemen did not discuss their wartime experiences with their wives, either because they wanted to put the war behind them or because in some cases their wives were simply not interested and shut them up when they attempted discourse. The majority of the former POWs did not discuss the depredations they had endured with anybody and certainly not with their wives. It was the `stiff upper lip' time when it was thought that if one did mention these matters it would lead to accusations of a `lack of moral fibre' - consequently, the POWs, their wives and children all suffered and, in the case of the majority of the Far East POWs, suffered abominably.

But no two stories are the same; and that's what makes this such a remarkable book. Julie Summers has invested a great deal of time and research which has been carried out so successfully that even though her questions to the survivors might to some appear to be intrusive, she has obviously put those questions with extreme tact which has resulted in the answers which make this book so readable.

There is also a very interesting chapter on the grandchildren of the survivors; the former POWs would often divulge their experiences to them, something they never would have done with their own children. As one contributor mentioned, `It was as if the communication between my father and my children was a private matter that we were able to listen in on, but could not interrupt.'

Perhaps, one of these days, someone will write a book about the effects of combat on servicemen and women returning from conflicts, such as the one in Afghanistan. I only hope that person will be as skilful a writer as Julie Summers.

The best book, on any subject that I've read in a long time.
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on 19 October 2013
This book deals with the consequences of soldiers' wartime separation and experiences. The effect on family relationships. The interviews with wives, mothers' and children in this book were very interesting to me as a 1950s child. My grandmother always said my father was never the same after he came back from the war. From reading this book I can see this was true for many households. This gives a different definition of casualties of war; highlighting the many years of secret emotional hardship which women and children (as well as the ex servicemen) endured long after the conflict ended.
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A fascinating insight into the lives of families after the war. How these people coped as they tried to rebuild families and rekindle marriages and establish working lives in truly admirable. The author has researched her subject well and I was interested in seeing the situation from various view points, such as the child who didn't remember their father, the wife who had held it all together alone for years and was now expected to go back to the old ways and the men, some of whom had suffered in ways we can't begin to imagine . If you are interested in history in general, the second world war era or the social aspects of family dynamics this is a fascinating read.
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on 18 September 2008
The moving and beautifully told story of the way that women - wives, sisters and mothers- coped when their menfolk came home from the war, often very traumatised and difficult to live with. Real life experiences, with lessons for us all, even now.
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on 7 May 2014
I bought this book to explore the effects of WW2 on the women who stayed at home. It was a fascinating read and I used it to support a military history assignment. This book explores the social and emotional issues of men being demobilised and the effects it had within the home. A great book.
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on 13 January 2013
This was very interesting and enlightening and made one realise the huge price ordinary people had to pay for surviving World War Two. It described a lot of very different cases and the readjustments that had to be made, most of which had been entirely unforeseen.

Well written, well researched and very readable.
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