Jacqueline Levering Sullivan is a retired professor of writing who founded and directed the Writing Center at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. She is also author of both Annie’s War and its newly released sequel, A Less Than Perfect Peace.
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One of my earliest memories dates from the beginning of World War II. The radio was on all day every day and full of reports about war. “What is war?” I asked my father one morning. It meant something bad. I was sure of that. Our house was full of whispers and closed doors and distressed voices. I don’t remember how my father answered, but I do remember sensing that the adults around me were worried. That frightened me the most.
Years later, some of those memories came back to me one evening during a nightly news report about the children of parents who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and who had returned home either physically or emotionally damaged — or worse, both. One young face stayed with me long after the news was over. A blond-haired little boy, no older than eight or nine, stared directly into the camera talking eagerly about what he would do to help his father get better so their lives could return to normal.
I began to think about how children cope with the aftermath of war and how they are affected by the return of a parent who has been seriously injured. And I wanted to explore why children often feel responsible for their parents’ well-being, believing that they are the only ones who can and must make things right again.
Since questions like these are sometimes best addressed by setting them in an historical context, I decided that this would be Annie’s story to tell. A Less Than Perfect Peace takes place in 1950 — four years after the events of Annie’s War — but the story of her family’s struggle to cope with the aftermath of war is not unlike that of many families today. The invisible wounds of war are as painful and challenging in 2014 as they were in 1950.
In World War I, a soldier who suffered from what we now call PTSD was said to suffer from “Shell Shock.” In World War II it was called “Combat Fatigue.” And not only was this condition barely understood, but it also carried a stigma. Real men don’t seek help, many believed. They tough it out. In the past, psychological “wounds” were often seen as signs of weakness; a soldier who sought help might be ostracized. Even today, with all we know about the effects of PTSD, men and women returning from the battlefield are often reluctant to seek help.
In Annie’s War, Uncle Billy’s belligerence was inspired by the behavior of my own uncle, who returned from WWII unsettled, angry, given to violent outbursts of temper. He eventually disappeared from our lives, and I never saw him again. The kind of help he needed was not available, and unlike Annie’s family, mine was too frightened to reach out and help him find his way back.
And what about the children who experience war first hand? It was important to tell their stories as well. When I first met the school friend who helped inspire the character of Johannes, the refugee, my junior high classmates and I were thrilled by his exciting stories of war. Like Johannes, my childhood friend had been part of the Dutch Resistance. Hearing about how he took part in destroying German troop trains was as electrifying as watching an action movie. It was only later, when I met another Dutch refugee in graduate school, that I learned what being a child in war-torn Europe truly meant. My friend, even as a small child, was aware that his parents were powerless against the Nazi soldiers who occupied not only their town but also their house. What frightened him the most was knowing that his parents wouldn’t be able to protect him. His family also suffered through what became known as “The Hunger Winter of 1944,” when most of the Netherlands faced starvation and people ate tulip bulbs to stay alive. Johannes, like Annie’s father and her Uncle Billy, struggles throughout the book with the powerful demons brought on by war.
I hope young readers will come to understand the connections they have with the past and how that knowledge might help them make sense of their own lives. I hope after reading A Less Than Perfect Peace, they also understand what strong shoulders they stand on.
Children often react to family tension in a way that differs from the reaction of the adults around them. They may fear, as Annie does, that their world is about to be split apart. Even though Annie misinterprets the source of the tension, she is, in contrast to the rest of the family, more aware of her father’s need to be regain his independence.
Like many young people today living in the aftermath of wartime trauma, Annie will do anything to keep her world from collapsing. She sees a problem and is not about to let go until it is solved. Her solutions may not be perfect, but she becomes stronger through the struggle and, in the process, makes a positive difference in the lives of those around her.
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