The War Comes to Plum Street
by Bruce C. Smith; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2005, $29.95.
The war comes to Plum Street details the impact World War II had upon New Castle, Indiana, and in particular on the four daughters of the Moles family, their spouses and their neighbors on Plum Street. Oral histories form the basis for the book written by a son of one of the daughters. Like many of the residents of this small industrial city, Jess and Ethel Moles had migrated from Appalachia in the 1920s, and scraped by through the Depression. Their eldest daughter graduated from high school in 1940, more concerned with events at home than the war then raging across the sea.
December 7, 1941, of course, changed everything. As Smith points out, America’s entry into the global conflict was both good and bad for the citizens of New Castle. The war’s arrival brought prosperity to the town and jobs not just for men but for women. Rationing made it difficult to enjoy that prosperity, but rationing wasn’t a hardship for those who had been through the Depression. The hardship was sending off loved ones to a war from which 114 county residents, including three women, would not return. The Moles sisters and their friends were approaching adulthood just as war threatened their suitors. The choice to marry that these young women and their spouses made marked a profound change from the world their elders knew.
Many readers will find this book frustrating. Smith is so wedded to chronology that the narrative quickly skips from a personal story about dating to a quick summary of battles then on to a recollection of life in training camp and finishes with an incredibly detailed summary of the rationing regulations. On the positive side, the one compelling insight this wandering yields is that what happens on the larger stage often has relatively little immediate impact on the personal lives of people living in their own communities. Likewise, the portrait of the war that frames the chapters seems likely to frustrate detail-oriented World War II historians. The Battle of Midway, for example, earns less than a sentence, with more attention paid to the Allied landings on Attu and Kiska. Some of these flaws are probably those of oral histories, the gaps and the mistaken recollections of the interviewees’ own stories. Another weakness is that Smith’s personal opinions about Roosevelt and the central planning of his administration detract from the compelling personal stories that power this narrative. The author seems obliged to embrace his Republican grandfather rather than Roosevelt supporter Jess Moles.
Yet the book is worth reading for what it offers about the emotional life of the times. Smith recognizes that in a small community and, more particularly, on a single street, lives are enmeshed: Even though all the daughters’ husbands returned home, each knew several men who did not. The death of a local man, signaled by the passing of the Western Union boy and then printed in the local paper, drove home the fragility of their lives; it left them to wonder if their love would be next. Out of this anxiety came, Smith implies, a desire to live for the day. Each of the Moles daughters married without the approval of either their own parents or their betrothed’s parents.
Ultimately, this book is deeply personal, but it reminds us that life is lived at a deeply personal level. It probably resonates for this reviewer because it corresponds to my parents’ stories of being young people in the nearby city of Indianapolis. And it certainly hits close to home when I see the names of distant cousins or the surnames of the dead that match those of my own classmates—an uncle lost, perhaps, before we were born—and when I imagine that some of the women who lost husbands may well have remarried and been friends of my mother later in life. My personal connections to this community help make the story compelling to me, but I believe this study of just one small sliver of an ordinary American community will be appealing even to those who did not grow up in New Castle.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.