Monday, August 04, 2008


by Barbara D'Amato

Alzina Stone Dale is a long-time member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, familiar to most people in the crime-writing world. She is the author of biographies of Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, as well as walking guides to mystery fiction sites in Chicago, London, the U.K., and much more.

She has written a memoir called WHEN THE POSTWAR WORLD WAS NEW, about her experiences in Europe just after the war. The book is coming out from Tate Publishing Company, with a pub date probably in 2009. I recently read several sections of it.

1952. World War Two is recently over and much of Europe is in ruins. Dale, newly graduated from college, hearing about acquaintances “stacking bricks in West Berlin” and “clearing Finnish forests” goes to Europe to a work camp under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee. Later she backpacks through Germany, Italy, the U.K. and France. She describes Hamburg, “bombed to pieces, cold, wet, and hungry.” In Cologne, the Cathedral stood untouched, “while every other building seemed to be gone. In London, “a line of churches—just shells.”

Dale’s observations of postwar Europe provide insight into the roots of conflict in our present time. Many Europeans, far from being endlessly grateful, saw the Americans as future world leaders and resented it. I was especially surprised that in the U.S. election that year, Dwight Eisenhower versus Adlai Stevenson, the Brits strongly favored Stevenson. Eisenhower had been Allied Commander and I would have thought he’d have been viewed as a sort of savior. And if not, at least he was the devil they knew, as opposed to the devil they didn’t know. Dale’s perception then was that the Brits very much resented the fact that U.S. troops had good food and housing in Britain, which the local people, many with homes bombed, did not. “Not reasonable,” as she says, but it makes sense.

It was a time different from today. She had, for instance, to sign three papers to declare she was not now and had not ever been a Communist” to get a passport.

Her adventures are not just sober, they are fun reading, too. Watching her young self as she sees Queen Elizabeth II drive to her coronation is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Among the many charms of this book is her willingness to rely on her own diaries and her letters home, as well as letters from her friends. There is a freshness that would not be there if she had only summarized, as a 2008 person, what one might think about the postwar times.

Which brings me to my question. How many of us would use our young words in anything? My mother threw out all my letters home from college and later, so that is over and done, but not too long ago I threw out all my early writing. It was ghastly.

Would you use any of your juvenilia? Where? How?


Tony D'Amato said...

Why do many writers leave instructions to their executors to burn all their manuscripts? Are they perfectionists who are afraid of people seeing their unpolished works? Are they so selfish that they want to keep all their ideas to themselves? Or is it a feeling that if the public was unwilling to pay to read those manuscripts, they should not now get them for free?

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, Thanks for this lovely introduction to Alzina's memoir--I am eager to read it.

My young words? I can barely stand the ones I write today!! However, in cleaning out my parents house, I found a diary I kept w hen I was 10-11. I wrote about food and clothes, the same things that are on my mind today--it was depressing to see how little I have grown as a person!

Barbara D'Amato said...

I agree, Sara. I don't read anything I've written once it's in print.

Alzina's diaries are much smarter I think than anything I would have written at that age. Her memoir is a glimpse into a time that has been in many ways misremembered and misrepresented.