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Preston-based author Johanna Winard has written a novel about the second world war which provides readers with a less than rosy account of the role of the US army in this country.
Reminiscent of the film Yanks, it tells the story of 15-year-old Ruby, who in 1942 is taken to a small village in Preston after the death of her mother. A few days after her arrival a group of black GIs take over a base nearby.
Winard remembers members of her own family passing on stories about the relationships between the black soldiers and the poor local working-class community.
“Stories of the soldiers helping old folk to mend their gates, playing with the children and coming to the village dances have become a sort of folk memory,” she says.
Even watching contemporary news stories has brought back harsh memories for some people in the village.
“I can remember sitting with an old family friend shortly before she died. When an item came on TV about the US forces’ treatment of their prisoners in Iraq it immediately took her back in her mind to the way the military police beat black soldiers in the second world war.”
It seems incredible nowadays that the US army had a segregationist policy towards their own black soldiers.
There were separate army units, separate hospitals and separate blood banks.
In Ruby’s War Winard describes a real event known as the battle of Bamber Bridge in 1943 when black soldiers revolted against the racism of their officers and were supported by local people and British servicemen.
“The experience of the black soldiers shows that racial prejudice isn’t a knee-jerk reaction, particularly not within the working class, and that in this situation, in this little community, people recognised the black American soldiers as working people like themselves who had come to join the fight against fascism.”
Choosing to write about historical events can be limiting for a writer, but Winard does not have a problem with this. “My novel is in a specific period and includes the Bamber Bridge event as part of the story.
“You have to keep to the main facts. It means that you couldn’t let the African-American troops come off best, even though you would love to.”
Winard chose to highlight the lives of working-class people in Britain at this time and particularly their hopes for the future.
“I wanted my readers to go away knowing more about the experience of working-class people, the interaction between working people and the black American soldiers and how there was a feeling of hope that things were going to improve after the war.”
Winard also wants the book to be read by younger readers.
“It is written for young people because I wanted them to know about their history, that in a small village in Preston, ordinary people took black soldiers as their friends and to their hearts.”
Some older readers will be reminded of a time when class was embedded in the relationships in villages such as the one in this book — a time when people had to pay to see a doctor — but also a time of change when women could escape into the munitions factories and earn a better wage than they could get in domestic work.
Winard has not seen Ken Loach’s Spirit Of 45, but her novel does encapsulate the way in which people did have great hopes for a post-war Labour government.
She is a trustee of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford and feels that remembering working-class history is crucial.
“Every time I walk into the library it reminds me of what people have achieved and it is so important to get this over to people. We have to defend what we have got and we will have to fight for it all over again.”
n Ruby’s War is published by Allison and Busby, priced £7.99. For more of Bernadette Hyland’s writing visit lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com.
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