Tag Archives: Joy Neal Kidney

Nonfiction Picks from Joy Neal Kidney and Gwen Wilson

I’ve been reading instead of writing lately. Today I want to share two of the nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed.

Book #1 is biographical and historical nonfiction based on the author’s family history.

A year and a half ago I reviewed Joy Neal Kidney’s nonfiction book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. That book opened my eyes to the “home front” during WWII—what the war was like for some American families. Joy’s family, in particular, suffered great loss as three of her grandparents’ sons died in battle.

Joy has a new book out called Leora’s Dexter Stories. The subtitle, “The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression,” gives an idea of what story lies inside. It’s also an understatement. This book uses a variety of sources, such as journals and family stories to piece together a heart-breaking account of the poverty experienced by the Wilson family during the Depression.

Too bad this book can’t be required reading of every American and every student in American schools so that we learn not only what hardships people went through during that time but also how hardworking, clever, and resilient they could be. Our ideas of recycling and repurposing today are a joke compared with what Leora, Clabe, and their children did to survive. For awhile the only thing that kept them from being homeless was when the two oldest sons joined the Navy and sent money home to the family. The family endured criticism and gossip from others because of the need to sometimes be on a form of relief, although they worked very hard as tenant farmers or in other jobs. I managed to hold off crying until daughter Doris, Joy’s mother, an amazing basketball star, had to leave her full-scholarship business college because she couldn’t afford rent. This book is a powerful tribute to the Wilson family.

 You can find Joy here: JOYNEALKIDNEY.COM

Book #2 is a coming-of-age and family dysfunction memoir, set in Australia.

Australian Gwen Wilson, writer of the blog Garrulous Gwendoline, has published a memoir called I Belong to No One. On the cover it also reads: “One woman’s true story of family violence, forced adoption and ultimate triumphant survival.” I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started to read, but I was immediately hooked by Gwen’s storytelling voice. As you might expect from a woman who bills herself on WordPress as “garrulous” and says in the memoir that one of her favorite words is loquacious, Gwen’s voice expertly tells her story and imparts her personality. Her voice is strong, confident, and positive because so is the woman telling the story of her childhood and youth. She also comes across as humble and sincere. This is the successful, mature adult looking back at her upbringing. And while she was clearly always very emotionally strong and generally positive, she was not always confident because the life experiences she went through from a young age tried to grind her down. But Gwen didn’t let them keep her down. Whenever she could catch a lucky break, she would run with it. Finally, she caught one in the form of a job in the shipping world and was able to move forward with her adult life.

Nevertheless, with Gwen’s muscular and straightforward prose, the majority of the story details what she had to overcome. Legally, she was raised by a single, mentally ill mother who was not capable of parenting her. But in reality, Gwen was raised by her older brother Steve and a series of surrogate moms in the form of neighbors, aunts, and friends’ mothers. This patched-together group of “moms” are where Gwen learned how to be a woman. The topics covered from Gwen’s first person perspective include domestic abuse, illegitimacy (in a time when that really mattered), forced adoption, child neglect, poverty, and rape. The rape scene and how it was handled afterward should be mandatory reading for anyone who is unsure of the #metoo movement. It reminds me of how things were when I was young (so we need to remember that we have made some improvements in society and law regarding rape). Gwen truly had nobody to turn to—and no rape crisis centers as they hadn’t been invented yet.

Gwen’s descriptions of her homes and the people in her life are carefully and wonderfully drawn. I find it difficult to move from under the spell of her story and back into my own life. Gwen was born the same year as memoirist Mary Karr. There are similarities in topics, but Australia in the 60s and 70s was much different than the United States. And Gwen had less advantages than Mary Karr had. But anybody who found The Liar’s Club or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle fascinating will find Gwen’s book just as hard to put down.

I hope to have reviews of a couple more books next week!

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Felix update: First we went through the exact same disappointment at a different ultrasound facility on Tuesday–it was another screw-up and they sent us home. However, the next day he had his ultrasound. It showed a liver tumor, enlarged lymph nodes in his abdomen, and other smaller issues. I haven’t been able to talk to his regular vet after she got a copy of the report but we did speak briefly and hypothetically. It’s unlikely that we will put him through more testing as it would be traumatic to him and probably to no avail. But a decision has not yet been made. If we don’t do more testing, we will provide hospice for him at home. I have started giving him subq fluids (under the skin with a needle) once a day, as well as several meds. The internist who performed the ultrasound was so impressed with Felix’s chill personality. He really is the epitome of a “good boy.”

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Book Review: Leora’s Letters OR How I Learned Empathy for Americans During WWII

Last week I experienced an emotional interior life as I read Joy Neal Kidney’s nonfiction book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. 

I first met Joy through her blog attached to her website: JOYNEALKIDNEY.COM

Gradually, I realized that her family story was quite remarkable, and that Joy had put it into book form. Since Joy is a joy to communicate with on her blog and mine (articulate and kind), I decided to read her book, which was written in conjunction with Robin Grunder,  although WWII is not really “my area.”

Before I started the book, I already knew the gut punch of the book; it’s not a secret that one finds out only by reading. The horrifying reality is shared right on Joy’s website. Joy’s mother Doris had five brothers. All five young men entered the war on behalf of the United States. Only two brothers came home at the end.

Although it might seem counter to know this fact up front, it actually heightened the suspense because I was reading carefully for the details of their lives as the war began and then continued, luring one by one of the brothers into the war. I wasn’t sure who would survive and who wouldn’t—or what would happen to them before they died and how they would die. What a page turner!

I was captivated by the life of these Iowa farmers from the beginning. Hard working and smart, they also were satisfied with so little—simple, healthy food; satisfying work to perform; family togetherness; and aspirations for the future. I fell in love with each one of these brothers as they shared their hearts and lives through letters to family members, especially their mother Leora. They were not small-minded or selfish, but operated out of honor and a humble pride.

During the last section of the book, I was reading in the doctor’s waiting room because I couldn’t put the book down except when I absolutely  had to. I read something so really small, but so powerful, that I burst into tears right there in front of the other patients. That’s a warning to you if you read the book in public.

This book is not a novel. It doesn’t have the frills of one. Joy curated the letters and wove the story around  the letters in a very graceful way. I was so impressed with the powerful and understated writing skills that went into crafting the book. The editing job was also well done. Now I have much more feel for what my father-in-law went through in WWII. And for that entire generation.

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My father-in-law Murray Scheshko (later known as Castle) was part of the 353rd Fighter Group that flew bombing missions over occupied Europe. They are considered heroes in England. Murray was not a pilot. He was staff sergeant, an “armourer,” which means that he was in charge of the weapons for the group. His file was destroyed in the 1973 National Archives fire, but there are records associated with his payment history. According to a transcript of the record he also served in the following “battles and campaigns”:

  • Air Offensive Europe
  • Central Europe
  • Normandy
  • Northern France
  • Rhineland
  • Ardennes-Alsace

Here is a photo of Murray:

Murray died in 1984 from a heart attack he experienced while on a commercial plane flight.

I never thanked him for his service.

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