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Once There Was a War

John Steinbeck’s Account of Life in Churchill’s Britain

Once_there_was_a_warIn June, 1943 the great American novelist John Steinbeck sailed on a troopship to Britain to report on the Second World War for the New York Herald Tribune. He stayed the summer in England before following the war to Italy. His reports were eventually collected in 1958 under the title Once There Was a War. Though not as well known as his fiction (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), Steinbeck’s account of life in Churchill’s Britain is one of his best books. By turns comic, poignant and achingly melancholy these sketches will make you laugh and cry unless you truly have a heart of stone. Anyone who has ever served in the armed forces will recognize the timeless situations and characters that Steinbeck records. Nor are the trials of the civilian population overlooked. This may be the literary counterpart to Edward R. Murrow’s famous war broadcasts, better in fact since these stories were set down to be read.

Steinbeck begins his account with a description of his voyage on a troopship and what it was like for the common soldier aboard: a dreary experience underscored by constant rumours concerning U-boats. Once in Britain he describes life at a B-17 airbase.  But Steinbeck also focuses on those who seldom received attention during or after the war: halftrack operators, dockworkers from Ireland and Wales and the missions of minesweepers. An article about a mixed-battery (men and women) anti-aircraft unit on the coast describes just the sort of war work carried out and described by Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames in her memoirs A Daughter’s Tale.

Steinbeck describes the sangfroid of the British population under the strain of bombing while carefully noting that the attacks took a heavy toll. Especially heartbreaking is an account of the bombing of a cinema during a children’s matinee. “The broken children were carried out and rushed to the hospital, crushed and shot and destroyed. The dead ones were set aside for burial, but those who still breathed and kicked and wimpered went to the waiting doctors.”

steinbeck_nobelSteinbeck: Nobel LaureateLike Churchill, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once There Was a War, written by a great author at the height of his powers, shows why. Steinbeck himself did not escape injury. In Italy he was hit by shrapnel and later experienced periods of amnesia. Soldiers told him that they wanted to read something by him not about the war. Steinbeck listened and after returning home produced his classic novel Cannery Row noting about it in a letter to a friend “one thing–it never mentions the war–not once.”

Once There Was a War is readily available on the second-hand book market. Try bookfinder.com  Penguin Classics have kept the book in print as a paperback and now in electronic format. (Try amazon.com) Additionally, the Folio Society has published a beautiful new edition with powerful black-and-white photographs. (See foliosociety.com)

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