One of the biggest trends in history books-- both fiction and nonfiction-- is telling the story from a different perspective. The most popular of these perspectives, especially with book discussion groups, is from the female point of view.
Theresa Kaminski is a Professor in the Department of History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Her writing and scholarship is focused on American Women’s History. She is the author of three well received books on American Women in WWII. In fact, on January 29th, she was featured on the back page of the Wall Street Journal’s book section in their “Five Best” series where she gave her best books on Americans under Japanese occupation. Here is the link to the online version, but you need digital access to read it. [I get the paper so I have a print copy, but you could also get one from your local library.]
Ms Kaminski also happens to have some deep roots in Berwyn, IL, the town where I was a librarian for 15 years. She is also a college friend of one of my friends who still works there. He mentioned Ms. Kaminski and her books to me. I was intrigued and contacted her. Turns out she loves talking to librarians and library patrons.
So I asked her to write up a little something about herself and her books. I think they would be great book discussion titles. In fact, Ms. Kaminski has even offered to Skype with any library book groups that are interested in reading her books.
Click here to contact Ms. Kaminski about having her Skype with your book group.
And read below to learn more about Ms. Kaminski and her fascinating books and research.
Writing the History of American Women in World War II
by Theresa Kaminski
I hadn’t planned on writing three books about women and war. I hadn’t even planned on writing one. That changed after I watched the Masterpiece Theatre series, A Town Like Alice. It depicted an aspect of the Second World War I wasn’t familiar with-- British women captured in Malaya by the Japanese. I tracked down and read Nevil Shute's 1950 novel on which the series was based, then started researching the history behind Shute’s story.
It was fascinating, but since my academic specialty is American women’s history and since at the time I was in the process of writing about postwar feminism, I couldn’t see that it had anything to do with my research agenda. Besides, the most recent works about women and World War II by American historians like Karen Anderson and Susan Hartmann focused on issues of work and family on the homefront. Other scholars addressed the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during the war. But that was about it in terms of American women’s connection with the war.
Then I found a copy of a 1947 memoir published by Agnes Newton Keith. She was an American woman living in Borneo with her British husband when the Japanese invaded and interned the Allied civilians there. This was my first piece of evidence that American women had experienced something similar to the fictional Jean Paget in Nevil Shute’s novel. Finding more real-life women like Agnes Keith took time and patience. It’s been so many years since that initial research that I don’t remember exactly what led me to the Philippines, but that must have been the next piece of the puzzle.
The United States colonized the Philippine Islands in the early 20th century, after the Spanish-American War. Thousands of American men and women settled there, working for the U.S. military or government, setting up their own businesses, or taking employment with a variety of Filipino concerns. Japan, eager to find additional living space and resources for its citizens, coveted the Philippines. American and Japanese imperialism were on a decades-long collision course in the Pacific. A few hours after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they turned on the Philippines.
The bombings were a prelude to invasion and occupation. On January 2, 1942, Japanese troops moved in to the capital city of Manila. A few days later American citizens were compelled to surrender for registration, a sham process that turned into enforced internment for thousands of men, women, and children.
I started on the research. For this project, I decided to work with text sources rather than conduct one-on-one interviews. The major reason for this was the passage of time. By the mid-1990s, World War II was fifty years in the past. Many of the women who had been living in the Philippines during the war had already died. For the ones still alive, I had concerns about issues of memory.
So I looked for printed sources. This went rather smoothly. By the mid-1990s, many library and archives catalogs were online and linked to interlibrary loan systems. I started searching under “memoir” and “personal narratives” to find published firsthand accounts of the American women interned in the Philippines by the Japanese. Most of these had been put out by small regional presses or were privately published. Very few archives had any relevant collections.
I found enough personal narratives to form the core of my first book, Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. Most of it centers on how women, many of whom had children with them, experienced detention in internment camps in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific theater. A couple of chapters focus on how and why some of them managed to evade internment.
The book’s cover photo shows a deceptively domestic scene: a group of neatly dressed women and children, most of them smiling and looking relaxed. The picture had been taken in one of the smaller internment camps in the Philippines, in the lovely mountain city of Baguio on the main island of Luzon. The first time I saw that picture, I was also the mother of a young son. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be removed from my home, separated from my husband (many American men in the Philippines had joined the military and ended up as POWs; the remaining civilians were interned in quarters away from the women and children), never knowing what the occupying Japanese troops would do next.
Researching and writing that book piqued my interest in additional projects on ordinary women. After the publication of Prisoners in Paradise, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ethel Thomas Herold, one of the women who’d been interned in Baguio. A photograph taken of Ethel and her husband Elmer in early 1945, the two of them standing in the ruins of a Manila street, gaunt, in ragged clothes, but alive, posed a nagging question. What was this white, middle-class, college-educated woman from Wisconsin doing in the middle of one of the fiercest battles of World War II?
I wrote my second book, Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines, to answer that question. Here was an ordinary woman who lived through nearly a century of extraordinary events. Born and raised in a farming community in southwestern Wisconsin in 1896, Ethel Thomas traveled across the state in 1913 to attend Lawrence College. There she majored in history (unusual for a woman), took voice lessons, became involved in the suffrage movement, and met her future husband, Elmer Herold. When Elmer signed up to fight in the First World War, Ethel, now a college graduate, taught high school history, rolled bandages for the Red Cross, and volunteered for the state division of the Food Administration.
After she and Elmer married in 1920, they decided to do something to express their patriotism and their faith in the new world order forged by the Allied victory in 1918. The Herolds applied and were accepted for teaching positions in the public school system in the Philippine Islands. After they left teaching and Elmer took a job with a local lumber company, the couple made Baguio their home, raising two children in a colonial idyll that lasted until the Japanese attack in December 1941. Just after Christmas, the family was interned in a civilian camp, where they remained until late 1944 when all of the internees were transferred to Manila. The Herolds survived the war and after a brief period of recuperation, Ethel and Elmer returned to Baguio. Over the next dozen years, they helped rebuild the city and witnessed the Philippines transition from a colony to an independent nation.
When I finished writing Citizen of Empire and found a publisher for it, I thought I was done writing about the Philippines. A literary agent, Jacqueline Flynn, contacted me after she had seen the movie The Great Raid. She was intrigued by the portrayal of Margaret (Peggy) Utinsky, an American woman who risked her life to help POWs in the Philippines. I’d included Peggy’s experiences in one of the chapters in Prisoners in Paradise, and Jacquie wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book about Peggy. That idea, after a few years, resulted in Angels of the Underground.
As in the previous books, it was the personalities of the women that drew me to this story: Peggy Utinsky, a nurse, bold and brash, with a love for good conversation and a glass of beer. Claire Phillips, the garrulous, glamorous nightclub singer with a flair for the dramatic. Gladys Savary, a cocktail-loving restaurant owner and entrepreneur. Yay Panlilio, daring reporter turned guerrilla. These four women were determined to survive a brutal enemy occupation and to undermine the Japanese at every opportunity.
Together, these three books introduce readers to fascinating women, while informing them about equally fascinating aspects of American history. They can generate wonderful conversations about why these women chose to do what they did as well as that great “what if” question: What would I have done under the same circumstances?
I would be happy to Skype in with any interested book clubs and am willing to provide discussion questions and/or lists of related readings.