“When Books Went to War”

I read literature because I find traces of my private self within its pages. All my qualities -admirable and abundantly less so – are there, and in recognizing them I feel a lovely sense of relief that I’m not entirely an odd duck. But we read for more than mere self-recognition, don’t we? We read because sometimes books can change the course of one’s life.



It’s World War II and a young US Marine is in hospital recovering from malaria…..and the trauma of battle. He writes to Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.”

“I am 20 years old but feel twice that age. I went through hell in two years of combat overseas. I just wanted you to understand that despite my youth I have seen a little bit of suffering. Ever since the first time I struggled through knee deep mud….carrying a stretcher from which my buddy’s life dripped away in precious blood and I was powerless to help him, I have felt hard and cynical against this world and have felt sure I was no longer capable of loving anything or anybody.” He went through the war with a “dead heart….and dulled mind.” But then he began to read. “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place, I only know that it happened and that this heart of mine turned over and became alive again….I’ll never be able to explain to you the gratitude and love that fill my heart in appreciation of what your book means to me. It brought laughter and tears. Although it was unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction….I’m not ashamed. I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.”

Read “When Books Went to War” if interested in the fascinating, uplifting story of the Armed Services Editions. Put it this way: while Germany burned books, the US went to incredible lengths to provide military forces with literature. And romance novels – hello “Forever Amber!” They read in foxholes, bunkers, and submarines. And, as noted above, in hospitals.


About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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46 Responses to “When Books Went to War”

  1. Barbara! How absolutely wonderful to see your post!


  2. Wendy Nelson says:

    A heartwarming post – I’m happy to see you write with more space (in this case for a good-sized excerpt, but still…)
    Happy New Year! Here’s to more time for books, friendships, and shared humanity.


  3. KerryCan says:

    Oh, Barbara–I’m SO pleased to see you back here! I’ve thought of you often and worried a little . . . . The book you’re writing about sounds wonderful and it strikes me as especially compelling that a book I consider transformative in my own life was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I hope all is well and that you’re back for good. XOXO


    • Dear Kerry, lovely to hear from you here and to know that “A Tree….” is one of your own special books. Can you imagine the joy Betty Smith felt upon receiving the letters from overseas? Hers was one of the most popular books sent to our soldiers.


  4. I could have cheered when I saw your post surging majestically over the horizon of the reader…and what a subject!
    Books open minds and hearts….even in wartime.


  5. Eliza Waters says:

    I am thrilled to see your post in my in-box, Barbara! It has been so long, though you are often in my thoughts.
    Reading is therapeutic in many ways, so I am glad you are finding solace there.
    Wishing you all the best today and always. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. shoreacres says:

    I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” in a swing on my grandparents’ front porch, so your post brings back memories not only of the book, but also of a very special time and place. Certainly it was a different place than that of the soldier who wrote such a touching letter to its author, but that only speaks of the power of literature to touch us regardless of our personal circumstances.

    It’s such a pleasure to find a post from you in my inbox. I’ve thought of you often, and hoped you were well. Perhaps this will betoken another post or two (or more) in the New Year. How delightful that would be!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. JeanIe Cooper Thompson says:

    Hello, Barbara! I’m so glad to see your blog back! Happy New Year!


  8. We would like to extend the best wishes from our family to yours! May the New Year bring only good things to all of you!


  9. Louise says:

    Barbara, I was thinking about you while in Edinburgh in October. It made me so happy to see Silver in the Barn today. How many times have I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Such an amazing book! Happy New Year!


  10. Sandra says:

    How lovely to end the year with a post from you, Barbara. How I’ve missed that little corner of grace and sanity amongst my followed blogs. And whilst our little seaside library may not be the best stocked in the world, it does have a brilliant ‘resource and reserve’ system. Thanks for the inspiration for my next query there.


    • Hello, Sandra. I resolve to do a bit better in my writing/blogging this year (at least a bit more frequently) and cannot tell you how much I appreciate your comment. I found this little book uplifting on several levels – not least in how it proves once again literature’s power to transform. Happy New Year to you and yours!


  11. Lisle Katherine Caromba says:

    Dear Barbara, after following you on IG, I am so glad that I decided to take it a step further. I will make the effort to buy this book. One of my Christmas presents to myself is a book called “20 Books that changed the world” It has not yet arrived, as it is an imported book. (I am not in the USA) The importance of books cannot be over estimated. Happy reading in 2018!


    • Dear Lisle, thank you for your message. I don’t recognize your name from IG; perhaps you use another one there? So curious which twenty books they’ve selected as those that changed the world. The mind reels at the possibilities! In reading this book I was struck once again by the healing powers of good literature. Happy Reading right back atcha!


  12. ritaroberts says:

    So excited and pleased you are back blogging Barbara. I have missed reading your delightful posts. This book is one we should all read and I am one who most certainly will. We not only learn from books about good and bad people, we learn what they have been through to protect us such as the soldiers and sailors in WW l and WW11 some sacrificed their lives.. I hope you had a great Xmas and wishing you good health and happiness for the coming New Year 2018

    Liked by 1 person

  13. markbialczak says:

    Happy New Year, Barbara! Thanks for the reading suggestion.


  14. Jodi says:

    Barbara!!!! One of my first blogging friends!!! How good to see you hear! Hoooooray! And of course I have already gone to Amazon and ordered this book! Can’t wait to read. Happy Holidays to you and yours!!!


  15. Yay, she is back!!! So happy to see your post. Yes, books have the power to evoke deep emotions, inspire, throw a life line, teach us about different cultures, bring us closer to role models, and our own shadow self, of course 🙂


  16. Lovely to hear from you again. This is so true. I still have the copy of Racine’s plays that my father carried throughout his years as a prisoner on the Thailand-Burma Railway in WWII. His memoirs are full of the desperate need to share and preserver the books that individuals had managed to keep in the most desperate situations. The dream image that sustained him during his darkest times was a description by Kipling of a home and garden in England.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hilary, your comment is enormously moving and ties in with so much of what I read in this book. The Armed Services Editions were read and re-read to the point of annihilation. The boys clamored for new ones. And were so very grateful. I cannot imagine what your father endured as a POW but am grateful he made it home.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. So lovely to see you back! I shall look forward to your posts.


    • Helen, thank you so much. “Six Weeks in Summer” a book I remember so fondly and should make a point of re-reading each Christmas. I will pop over to your place soon to see what you’ve been up to. Happy New Year.


  18. Happy New Year, Barbara! It’s funny but for some reason I didn’t really consider soldiers with books during the war but what a good idea. As your excerpt shows, it could provide healing or context or even just escape.


  19. what a lovely surprise to find you in my inbox. I have missed you. This is such an interesting port. Military life can be lonely and books are always welcome. My Navy father was an avid reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thom Hickey says:

    Delighted to see you Posting again! Welcome back.

    Regards and Happy New Year.


    Liked by 1 person

  21. It seems you have been missed! Good people with insight and the ability to write about them well always will be.

    May 2018 treat you well.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Mahika says:

    All the best with 2018 !! U have a superb blog . Do visit and follow my blog if u like and relate to it .


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