Making the Best of It, Then and Now

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Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw

A week or two into our respective COVID-19 isolations at home in Alberta and Ontario, we (colleagues Amy and Sarah) each received, by mail, fresh from the printer, our copies of our new edited collection about female Canadians’ and Newfoundlanders’ experiences of the Second World War. The title – a last minute substitution at the press’s insistence, which seemed bland and unmemorable when we chose it six months ago – struck us, in the altered reality of a global pandemic, as entirely appropriate. [1] We are all, in these unsettling times, Making the Best of It.

Our book’s self-appointed task was to reassess and try to make sense of a persistent tension in the history and memory of how women and girls in Canada and Newfoundland experienced the Second World War. Scholars have amassed piles of compelling evidence showing the ways in which that era was one of anxiety, loss, strife, oppression, and hardship for women… but those who lived through it, even when they acknowledge those other elements, often remember it very differently. For them, it was also a time of new opportunities, fun and romance, challenges met and overcome, and communities pulling together in a common cause. 

Some of this rosy view of the era can be chalked up to retrospective nostalgia, but we dismiss it out of hand at our own peril. One of the most persistent themes wartime women and girls emphasize in their memoirs, letters, and interviews is the central significance of community to the entire experience. It may seem self-evident, but also bears repetition: who a person was – in terms of age, sex, race/ethnicity, religion, language, family, marital status, region, profession (etc.) – either gathered them into or kept them out of a host of communities. For better or for worse, membership (or not) in these communities then played an enormous part in how people understood the meaning of the war, what role they played in it, and how it affected them. 

It’s easy to think of 1940s Canadians and Newfoundlanders as wildly different from our early twenty-first-century selves. We are sharply divided from them by a wide array of technologies and expectations for our standards of living, as well as by social norms and attitudes. Moreover, the enemies of 1939-1945 could be located on a map, depicted in newspaper portraits, and identified with certain political ideologies. In April 2020 our enemy is faceless, microscopic, and unfettered by geography, financial resources, or “isms.”

How striking, then, to observe that one of our society-wide preoccupations in this global pandemic is community. Sure, we miss our freedom of movement and regret the long lines at grocery stores. But equally, we miss the people we see when we are more or less free to go where we wish, and we feel the passive-aggressive discomfort of making overly wide detours to avoid people walking toward us. We are utilizing all the telecommunication technologies at our disposal not just to maintain some semblance of a working life (where possible), but also to connect “just because.” And we’re not just reaching out to the people with whom we regularly interact, either. We’re also reconnecting with distant friends and loved ones we rarely see, people from previous places we’ve lived or groups we used to be part of, and those with whom we might not normally concern ourselves: isolated neighbours we barely know, people we fell out of touch with years ago. 

The public service announcements, TV, radio, and YouTube commercials, and government press conferences with which we are daily inundated emphasize that we are doing this to protect each other, that we are “alone together.” We are united, they tell us, not just in our homes, local areas, or countries, but indeed around the world, in a common struggle. Our Facebook and other social media feeds are peppered with sometimes cloying but ultimately well-meant inspirational stories, artwork, and videos of people supporting, encouraging, and being kind to one another. We urge others to be kind to themselves, if they are not coping well. Chalk messages on sidewalks and children’s artwork in windows greet passing strangers with upbeat messages of encouragement: “We’ve got this!” they proclaim.

In twenty or fifty or seventy years from now, when scholars study this pandemic and how it was handled, they will see many things: massive economic repercussions; state responses varying from highly effective to disastrous; panic-buying and toilet paper hoarding; people disregarding physical distancing guidelines on sunny days in public parks; a rise in incidents of domestic abuse; inequitable impacts on the poor and disenfranchised; scapegoating, wild conspiracy theories, and in many cases blatant disregard for scientific facts. These things will all be true.

But will those same scholars also see how our communities shaped the course of our days, and how we did what we could to make the best of the situation we were in? Will they recognize the contradictions and unexpected outcomes that we are experiencing first-hand – that, for instance, some stay-at-home mothers exhausted by the weekly pressure to manage conflicting schedules and chauffeur kids to a dozen different activities consider being forced to stay home as a welcome respite? Will they appreciate that the eager, fumbling attempts of non-bakers to bake everything were not just the latest social media-inspired fad but a comforting reconnection with the tastes and smells of our youth, with long-departed or physically distant family members, and with special holiday memories? Will they concede that it is possible to both be critical of a system that underpays and overworks front-line essential workers like grocery clerks and hospital orderlies, and at the same time feel a deep sense of gratitude to those workers for putting themselves on the line for the rest of us? Will they understand that in spite of being exhausted and harried by children and pets and/or too many people in too small a space as we tried to “work from home,” there were also moments of unexpected joy when we reconnected with people near and far who meant something to us? Will they see that we drew comfort and hope from those relationships, and sometimes had fun? Will they know what we mean when we say, in years to come, that it was a terrible time, but also a special one?

And if they do hear us say these things in the evidence we leave behind… will they believe us?

And now, a shameless plug:

Looking for some pandemic reading? We can’t hold a book launch right now, but we’d love for you to check out what our contributors have been working so hard on! Featuring exciting new scholarship from Graham Broad, Heidi Coombs, Marlene Epp, Sarah Glassford, Claire Halstead, Sarah Hogenbirk, Barbara Lorenzkowski, Lisa Moore, Lisa Pasolli, Jennifer Shaw, Joseph Tohill, and Sarah Van Vugt, Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020) is available to buy from UBC Press and other online booksellers:

Sarah Glassford is a social historian and the archivist in the Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections at the University of Windsor. 

Amy Shaw is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge. 

Together, they are co-editors of Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War and A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War, both published by UBC Press.

[1]The book was originally meant to be called A Terrible Price to Pay. This, of course, is also appropriate for the current situation — but rather less uplifting.

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