So what happened next?
During World War II, tens of thousands of young English women fell in love with American G.I.s. These intrepid women had survived the Blitz, bicycled through rubbled streets to jobs as welders and secretaries, endured rationing and food shortages, hidden in the Underground during bombing raids.
And now that the war was over, they were getting married and leaving everything behind — friends, family, home and homeland — for the glitter of America.
What did they find there?
In their new book, “GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love,” Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi tell the stories of four of these women.
Barrett and Calvi — and two of their subjects, Rae Zurovcik and Lyn Patrino — will speak on Saturday at the Merriam Park Library in St. Paul. Calvi’s grandmother, Margaret Boyle, was a war bride, and it was her story that prompted this book.
Q: Your book has been an international bestseller; what do you think is behind its strong reader interest?
Barrett: I think that everyone can relate to the power of young love, and the sacrifices we make for it.
In Britain, there is a lot of nostalgia for the “friendly invasion” of GIs during World War II, and people who were children during the war still recall the American soldiers who would stop in the street to give them chocolate and chewing gum.
I think for those that remember the women who disappeared into the arms of the Americans, there’s a fascination in knowing what happened to them next.
Q: How did you find the 60 women that you interviewed? How did you decide on the four that you profiled?
Calvi: When we started the book, we already knew we were going to tell my grandmother’s story, and we needed to find others that were equally dramatic and meaningful.
We spent three months in 2012 traveling around the U.S. in a little Fiat 500, interviewing war brides wherever we could find them — we covered 13,000 miles and visited 38 states.
We finally narrowed it down to the three other key stories in the book: Lyn, Sylvia and Rae. All of them faced great challenges adapting to life in America, but in their different ways they all found the strength to pull through.
Q: I was struck by the combination of strength and naiveté in these women — strength that allowed them to survive the war and navigate these incredibly difficult marriages, but a naiveté that might have helped land them in those marriages in the first place. Were there other commonalities that you noticed among these women?
Barrett: That’s definitely the case — and even the women we interviewed who turned out to have long and happy marriages always told us that it was more down to luck than judgment.
They had spent so little time with their husbands before they married them, and had never seen them in their home environments — the daughter of one war bride described it to us as “a crapshoot.” And yet, remarkably, the divorce rate among the GI brides was lower than for the general population.
Calvi: There were certainly common themes that emerged from our 60-plus interviews: homesickness, feeling that everyone was staring at them, having to deal with difficult in-laws.
Obviously some women had an easier time than others, but nearly all of them described a moment — usually about three months in — when the reality of their decision really hit them. One woman was riding a bus to the shops when she had a sudden epiphany — this was no holiday, but the rest of her life.
Q: Many of the men in the book seem damaged — either by the war, or by other problems (drinking, gambling). Were any of these women bitter about ending up in a relationship that wasn’t what had been first promised?
Barrett: I think a lot of brides felt that their husbands had not been honest with them before they married — in England, far away from family and their hometowns, the GIs could to a certain extent reinvent themselves. One woman’s husband told her he was “in oil,” but turned out to be a gas-station attendant!
To the English girls, they all seemed smart (their uniforms were much more stylish than the British equivalent) and rich (they earned up to five times the rates of the British Army). Part of the adjustment was getting used to who their husbands really were out of uniform.
Some women, of course, felt lied to, but for most it was more a process of getting to know the other person away from the distorting, heady atmosphere of wartime.
Q: Nuala, one of these war brides — the one with perhaps the most tragic life — was your grandmother. Did that make interviewing her more difficult, or easier? And how did your family react?
Calvi: It was definitely the hardest interview to do, because I felt personally affected by the stories my grandmother was telling me. Some of the things that happened to her were quite upsetting.
I hadn’t realized how alone she had felt as a young woman, and I wished I could reach out to her younger self and be there for her. When she died I made a promise to her that I would write her story one day, and the rest of the family was supportive of me keeping that promise.
Q: After doing so much research, were there conclusions that you drew about romance during a time of war?
Barrett: It was a time of heightened emotions, when women knew that not only were their husbands in mortal danger fighting on the beaches in Normandy, but they themselves could be wiped out at any moment by a German bomb.
Perhaps that atmosphere encouraged people to rush headlong into marriage — after all, you didn’t know whether you would still be here tomorrow. And it was also a very romantic era — the cinemas were filled with sentimental films with happily-ever-after endings, and many of them featured handsome American actors.
Before the war, most of the GI brides had never seen an American before — and I think some of them really did feel that they were marrying Hollywood movie stars.
Q: Did any of these women express regrets that they had followed their hearts?
Calvi: One of the women in the book stuck with her husband until the day he died, despite being unhappy, as she felt she had made a promise that she had to keep. But she admits that if she had her time again she would not have followed her heart. When she dies she wants her ashes to be taken back to England, which she still considers “home.”
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