CHICKEN EVERY SUNDAY by Rosemary Taylor (1943)
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith (1943)
In my June blog, we learned about “stories that helped us win World War II” distributed to soldiers in the form of Armed Services Editions (ASE) books. Of all the ASE books, Chicken Every Sunday and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were among the most beloved. I read both to discover what it was about these stories that captured the hearts of so many young soldiers far from home and living in danger; what it was that in some cases literally helped them get through the war experience.
Taylor’s book recounts the story of her family as she grew up. Their life began in Phoenix, Arizona, then continued in Tucson as that city was just starting to grow and providing rich opportunities for business. Taylor’s dad was by nature a promoter, always seeing new opportunities to make money in a wide variety of enterprises of various levels of risk, from a laundry to land to a gold mine. He started working as a young boy and never stopped. He just wasn’t a man who could work at a desk job in an office with defined hours.
Taylor’s mother was born in Virginia after the Civil War into a genteel but impoverished family. She learned to find a creative use for everything, never to throw anything away and to use every penny. As a woman whose primary concern was security for her family, she turned to one of the few avenues of earning an income available to her: she took in boarders. Hence the subtitle of Taylor’s book: My Life with Mother’s Boarders. She made sure she always had money stashed away from her husband and set up their home to accommodate boarders.
Happily, this worked wonderfully well for everyone. Tucson was booming, teeming with incoming people who needed a clean and comfortable place to live. The Taylor household provided a home-like atmosphere, and perhaps best of all, plenty of delicious, healthy food for all provided by Taylor’s mother, a natural cook.
Happily for us readers, there’s also no lack of interesting stories and hijinks involving the boarders. Taylor’s mother was a dynamo, always thinking creatively of the best way to house and feed her boarders, increase her income, and make life better for her family. Over the years, the family did very well in their endeavors and led a comfortable, busy, but never boring, life. No one was afraid of hard work, and it paid off for them all. They were an American success story, making it possible for their children to have a better life and more education than they’d had.
Taylor tells her story in a way that endears the characters to the reader. We leave the book wanting more, recognizing many characters as being like people in our own lives, and knowing we’ll return to read about them often in coming years.
Soldiers fighting in the war loved this book. One first lieutenant stationed in New Guinea wrote to Taylor that her book “gave them ‘the refreshing sense that the way of life which we have temporarily left behind is a rich and delightful heritage that awaits our return.’” Another soldier in China “compared reading the book to taking a leave. ‘It took me home for a couple of hours. It alleviated my homesickness. I really forgot about the war, and laughed and lived for a little while back in that marvelous house with all those wonderful people.’” [p. 109, When Books Went to War.]
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was another ASE book beloved by many soldiers, and it’s still quite widely read today. This is the story of a family living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn starting at the beginning of the 20th century and told by the daughter, Francie Nolan. Although Brooklyn was an area of many new immigrants, the Nolan family was not new to the U.S.
Francie’s parents married very young. Within two years, they had two children: Francie and her brother Neeley. (A sister was born more than a decade later.) It didn’t take long for the reality of their situation to become apparent. The parents did not have the job skills and prospects to support their family of four, and of course there was the child care issue for the mother. The father was an attractive man who loved to have fun and was a talented singer. But he worked only sporadically, usually as a singing waiter, and became an alcoholic who died while the children were still young. Francie’s mother realized she needed to be the practical-minded head of the family and took whatever menial jobs she could find.
Smith paints a vivid portrait of urban poverty in Francie’s early years. Children found ways to earn even a penny or nickel here and there to contribute to the family. Even so, there were times when there was not enough food, or they couldn’t afford enough coal for heat, or could afford only one pair of shoes which they quickly outgrew or had only one set of clothes for school.
The one thing they did have was their mother’s interesting extended family who could often help a bit. Francie loved to read and write from an early age. Her illiterate grandmother instilled the importance of education which Francie absorbed: she eventually was able to go to college. By that time, the family situation also improved with her mother’s remarriage to a sober, responsible man.
The most remarkable character in the book is Francie’s mother. Circumstances such as those in which she unexpectedly found herself by the age of 20 can make or break people. She found her inner strength, while the father broke. Even when working to the point of exhaustion to house and feed her family, she managed to instill good values in her children and did what she could to point them to a better life.
In those times, many families found themselves living hand to mouth. Many soldiers could relate to this story and the characters in it, so like their own. Betty Smith received thousands of letters from soldiers stationed all over the world thanking her for her story. More than one man recounted how he’d been feeling emotionally numbed by so much violence and death around him, but had started to feel again, to come back to life, after reading (and re-reading) her book.
The importance to the war effort of just these two wonderful books, not to mention the entire ASE library, cannot be discounted. The morale of the troops was an important component to the prosecution of and success in winning the war. Soldiers had to keep present in their minds WHY they were risking their lives in such an inhuman endeavor. In World War II, it was clear what they were fighting AGAINST. The ASE books, and these two in particular, helped them remember what they were fighting FOR: their loved ones, their country, and their aspirations for a better life and future after they won this war.