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'GI Brides' author Q&A with Duncan Barrett

GI Brides
Photo courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers

The specter of war encompasses many predictably tragic outcomes. Every now and then, the close proximity of different nationalities during wartime also brings about more positive developments. In the new release GI BRIDES, historians Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi tell the story of British women captivated by American GI’s during World War II. The non-fiction narrative focuses primarily on the stories of four women: Margaret (Calvi’s grandmother), Gwendolyn, Sylvia and Rae, and the sweeping romances that found them married and heading to America at the end of the war, sometimes with scant, real knowledge of their partners. GI BRIDES chronicles the enduring romance of some of the brides and the extraordinary determination and strength of others who had to re-invent themselves alone in a foreign land once their marriages failed.

Rae, a bride whose story is featured in the book, is doing well these days and residing in Pittsburgh. Akron, Ohio is close to Nuala’s heart, as it’s the city where her grandmother’s destiny played out. June, soon to be the subject of her own standalone e-book, currently resides in California.

GI BRIDES ushers in a fascinating chapter of WWII history for those who are not familiar with this wide spread historical trend—and for others, it will be a reminder of the stories of their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Fortunately for Examiner, we were able to sit down with Duncan Barrett, co-author of the book, and pick his brain about the imaginative, sweeping narrative of GI BRIDES.

Nikki Tiani: Tell us who was enjoying an evening digestif after dinner when the inspiration for GI Brides struck? How did you become co-authors as a result?

Duncan Barrett: Nuala [Calvi, co-author of GI Brides] and I were spending a lot of time interviewing older ladies about their lives for our last book, The Sugar Girls, when we suddenly realized: why are we talking to everyone else’s grandmothers and not our own? So Nuala started interviewing her grandmother, Margaret, about her early life – and she was astonished at the story she heard. She had grown up knowing her grandmother’s second husband, Patrick, as her grandfather, but in fact her real grandfather had been an American GI stationed in Britain during World War Two, and Margaret had been one of the first ever World War Two war brides to come to America. When we heard that, we knew what our next book had to be about.

NT: As this is the Pittsburgh Book Examiner column, of course everyone feels most dear to Rae - what's she up to these days?

DB: Rae is a very sprightly 90-year-old – just this summer she flew over to England (on her own!) to catch up with relatives, and we met her for a pint in the pub. She can still fit into her WW2 Army uniform and now wears it to give talks about her wartime experiences to schoolchildren. She’s an American citizen, but she still feels great loyalty to Britain as well – she flies both the stars and stripes and the union jack in her garden.

NT: Where are the rest of our brides? My own mother-in-law was a Vietnam war bride herself, and she's, admittedly, not assimilated as well as could be expected - even after 30 years on American soil. Did any of these ladies experience a culture shift? Were they forced to lean on one another (if acquainted), as a result?

DB: They are all over America – literally. When we researched the book we covered 13,000 miles in a little Fiat 500, interviewing war brides in 38 states. Of course California and Florida (popular retirement destinations) are more heavily populated. Wherever they settled, every bride faced challenges in adapting to a new culture, and sometimes it was the little things that really got them. One woman told us how she was defeated by supermarket shopping – in England at that time you would have shop assistants serve you from behind the counter, but helping herself to things from the shelves for the first time made her feel like a thief, and she ran out of the shop empty-handed. Not long after they arrived, the brides began to form their own support groups, where they would meet up and drink tea and eat Victoria sponge cake. Those groups still exist and the WWII War Brides Association has a grand reunion once a year that draws war brides from all over the country.

NT: You’re coming back to the Pittsburgh area to see Rae and give a talk about war brides - where will that be held? And what's your favorite Pittsburgh locale?

DB: We’ll be giving a talk – open to all – at the McKeesport Heritage Center in Renziehausen Park at 3pm on September 12. We’ll be sharing some of the stories we gathered from the many war brides we have interviewed – and Rae will be there too, sharing her memories of welding tanks for D-Day and sailing across the Atlantic in 1946 to meet her GI husband. The heritage center was very useful to us when we came here for our research two years ago – and it has a fabulous scale model of an old steel works. We also loved the Heinz History Center, which has an amazing collection of artefacts and documents. But the highlight of our trip was having lunch at a little diner in Finleyville where Rae worked in the 1950s. We ordered a Pittsburgh Salad and were astonished to find it came with fries on top!

NT: How long did it take the ladies to agree to be interviewed, or tell their stories? The texture of the book is incredibly intricate, and is telling of your expertise in narrative and piecing together these remarkable stories.

DB: We were very touched by how open and generous the women were with their stories and their time. We usually started with an initial interview of around an hour or so, and then went back and spoke to the women we chose as our core characters for the book in more detail, over the course of several days. They were very patient with our endless, seemingly trivial questions – what the weather was like on a particular day in 1944, or how they fixed their hair for a dance – but we’ve learnt that it’s the smaller details that make a story come to life.

NT: Did you have any other candidates on your radar to learn about, or did you set out with only these four ladies in mind?

DB: We set out with a very open mind. We knew that Nuala’s grandmother would be one of the women we focused on in the book, but when we arrived in America in August 2012 we just knew we had three months to track down three more equally fascinating stories. It was a nerve-wracking experience, knowing that if we didn’t find enough war brides before our visa ran out we’d really be in a bit of a pickle. But we ended up with more than 60 stories to pick from, all of which could have been books in their own right. In fact, as well as the four main women whose stories are told in the book, we wrote about a fifth lady, June, whose story is being released as an e-book exclusive.

NT: Now for the fun stuff! How lucky are you and why?

DB: Nuala and I feel very lucky doing the work we do. It’s a privilege spending our time talking to these extraordinary women – part of the ‘greatest generation’ – about their lives. Sadly, the women we interview often tell us that people around them take little interest in their experiences, and they are really pleased to find a receptive audience. We feel it’s really important to record these kinds of stories before it’s too late.

NT: Individually, are you more hunters, gatherers or a neat amalgamation?

DB: Nuala and I are both vegetarian, so I think you’d have to say we’re gatherers! But in terms of our research, it does feel like a hunting expedition – going out into unfamiliar territory in search of the perfect story.

NT: What do you dislike about humanity?

DB: It’s depressing the way our culture is so obsessed with youth, and often ignores and trivializes older people. It seems wrong that people who have done so much for their country are frequently lonely and isolated in old age.

NT: If you were 80 years old, what would you tell your children?

DB: Not to move too far away! We spend a lot of time hanging out with old ladies, and the ones who have family nearby are nearly always the happiest.

NT: Funniest thing that has happened on your book tour:

DB: Driving around America we stayed in some pretty sketchy motels. One night in Alabama we were caught in a torrential rainstorm and decided to stop at the first place we saw. When we opened the door to our bathroom we found a large hole in the outside wall – and a giant toad sitting on the floor that had come in to escape the rain. But the man who ran the motel had been so kind and encouraging when he learned we were writing a book that we didn’t have the heart to complain.

NT: Anything else you'd like to add?

DB: If you know any WW2 war brides who would like to speak to us, get in touch through our website www.gibrides.com (which is also where the book can be purchased- NT). We always want to hear new stories!