Summary: With most of her childhood male friends going off to fight in World War II, Natalie feels left behind as she waits for the war to end. When her beloved cousin Carmen enlists Natalie is left behind once more to her dismay. Determined to play her own part in supporting the war effort, she takes jobs at factories working diligently in munitions and then building mosquito airplanes. Though her job helps her gain self-confidence and some financial independence, Natalie is reminded of the reality of war when Carmen goes missing in action, presumed dead. When the war ends, Natalie must figure out what a post-war world holds for her and those she loves.
Number of Pages: 192
Age Range: 13-15
Review: I couldn’t have my Marathon of Books list without having a Bernice Thurman Hunter book on my list. The books of Hunter’s I grew up reading were all juvenile fiction, so I was thrilled when I realised The Girls They Left Behind fit my reading criteria.
I love Hunter’s writing because it is heartfelt and character-driven. Natalie, the main character of this story, does not disappoint as she matures into an adult during the tumultuous time of World War II by stepping up and taking factory jobs. She’s indignant about the fact that time and time again, as a woman, she is left behind. The boys and men go off to war, but the women must wait at home for news. Hunter paints a vivid picture of various women’s roles during the war, and it is an informative read.
It’s also a deceptively simple book, because when you look beneath the surface, Hunter is exploring issues of equality between men and women, trauma experienced by those going to war, the attitudes toward civilians who were deemed medically unfit to fight, resistance and anger toward war brides and girlfriends from England, as well as the need for love and stability through marriage at an uncertain time.
This is Hunter’s last book, and it was only partially completed when she died so her daughter Heather Hunter finished it for her. Heather writes about her mother’s motivation to write the story in an Afterward, and it turned out Hunter was drawing on her personal experiences of her cousin dying in World War II.
The Girls They Left Behind is a gently powerful book with a story behind the story. I hope writing it gave Hunter some resolution to the events of her life, and I am glad her daughter honoured her wishes by finishing it for her. This is an enlightening historical fiction read and one I would especially recommend to fans of the television series “Bomb Girls.”
“I sighed so loudly my mother said, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Oh, I’m just sick of being left behind all the time.’ I said.
‘I know how you feel,’ she said. ‘It was the same for my generation. I guess we’ll never learn.'” – Conversation between Natalie (Beryl) and her mother from The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter, page 62
“When the news was over Dad turned off the radio. To keep our spirits up, we usually listened to “The Story Hour,” which came on every night after the news. The stories about great heroism under fire were always uplifting. But in the stories, miracles happened – the planes always made it safely back to home base, the soldiers always lived to tell the tale because they had only sustained flesh wounds, and the sailors always got rescued at sea by patrolling corvettes.
But the telegram was read. This was not a story with an automatic happy ending.” – Natalie (Beryl) from The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter, pages 119-120
“I was done with being sad. Deep down I knew that I had a future made different from my friends’. I finally realised what I wanted to do with my life. I would become a teacher – a history teacher, so the past would not be forgotten. I wanted the young to know how awful it was for all of us, not only for the boys who went away – James and Reggie and Will and Alison’s brother, Ira – but also for the girls they’d left behind. It must never, never happen again! There must be no more war. … No more corpses floating in the shallow water, bloated and nameless as dead fish. Maybe one day I would meet a man with a mission, like me, and we’d get married and have babies and live to a ripe old age, as those boys never would, but always remembering what they did for us thousands of miles from home, defending our freedom.” – Natalie (Beryl) from The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter, page 184
The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, (2005).