Here in the United States, most of us grew up with a fairly limited understanding of World War II: the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Blitz, the Occupation of Paris, the Siege of Leningrad, and then the Yanks marched in and saved the day.
In her “War Diaries 1939-1945,” Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren presents the war from a Scandinavian point of view, which is more complicated and nuanced. The United States barely rates a mention.
In 1939, Lindgren was a wife and mother who worked part-time as a clerk-typist. She had not yet written “Pippi Longstocking,” had not yet achieved worldwide fame. Beginning on Sept. 1, 1939, and continuing until New Year’s Eve 1945, she kept a diary of the war, which eventually grew to fill 17 leather-bound notebooks.
The first entry begins: “Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.” And the book continues in that clear, heartfelt voice, deftly translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. It is a pleasure to read, even when we are reading about terrible things.
Lindgren is an intelligent and empathetic guide. Although she follows the war news avidly, she is much less concerned with politics than she is with human suffering, which she feels keenly on all sides. She notes shortages and rationing, the lack of hot water and coal, the deportation of families, the sinking of small Swedish fishing boats by the Germans.
She worries deeply about neighboring Norway, overrun with Nazis, and Finland, attacked and chopped in two by the Russians. She mourns the swallowing of the Balkans into the Soviet Union. (“Today, three free countries ceased to exist. … It certainly is a tragedy.”)
She writes about Greece, Romania, Iraq and Tunisia.
In 1940, Lindgren began what she called her “secret defence work” for the Swedish government, censoring mail going in and out of the country. She wasn’t allowed to discuss her work, but she did quote from some of the letters in the journal, providing glimpses into life in occupied countries.
In Paris, she writes, “one potato costs 5 francs. There are crows and hawks for sale in the markets.”
In Russia, “the poor soldiers at Stalingrad are holed up in dugouts with entrances guarded by Russian marksmen. And it’s cold in Russia now. Poor people, I can’t help feeling sorry for the German soldiers for having to suffer so terribly, no matter how much I detest Nazism and all the acts of violence the Germans have committed.”
Through all the violence and terrible news, and even during her own travails (her husband seeks a divorce, her son wants to leave school), she marvels at the beauty of the world.
“All I want to do is get out on my bike in the evenings to enjoy the profusion of flowers and all the greenery, the floral scents and the totally fantastic evening sky,” she writes. And, another time, “We went for a walk around the island in the light of the full moon with the scent of lime blossom and the budding bird cherry in our nostrils. Lovely! Lovely!”
Her gorgeous observations make her entries on the war that much sadder, that much more tragic. “God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness!”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.
War Diaries, 1939-1945
By: Astrid Lindgren, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.
Publisher: Yale University Press, 235 pages, $30.