I read Outside the Fence during the same week I watched Ken Burns' The War on PBS-TV. The dual experience of reading and viewing was quite remarkable, for while I was seeing the men fighting on the foreign fronts and the women and men fighting a different war on the home fronts, I was reading how four kids saw the war: three sisters and a brother, the children of an Army officer stationed in POW camps in Arkansas and New Mexico.
Outside the Fence is a "blended memoir," a quartet of four distinct voices. In the introduction, Marilyn Snethen Clark writes, "We knew our stories might disagree, but agreed that this was to be expected and that each of our memories was equally valid." As a reader, I enjoyed seeing four views of a particular scene, for each memoirist seemed to remember a different kind of detail.
The book begins with a cross-country trip from Indiana (the father had joined the Army in 1939 and was stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis) to Fort Stockton, California: four kids, a cocker spaniel named Flash, and two grownups in a new 1941 Pontiac ("one of the last to roll off the assembly line before the switch to the war effort"). On December 7, they stopped at the Grand Canyon, where they heard the news on the radio. Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
The war impacted their lives in both large and small ways. In California, Marilyn Snethen lost her best friend, a Japanese girl who was sent to an internment camp. In Arkansas, the family's next posting, the father was assigned to a POW camp filled with Italian prisoners who were put to work in local fields. "Mussolini told us we'd be marching across the United States," one prisoner told him, "but he didn't tell us we'd be dragging a cotton sack!" After Arkansas, it was off to Lordsburg, New Mexico, where the family lived in a tiny adobe house and the kids got acquainted with the surrounding desert.
This little book delightfully pictures the challenges of life in the United States during those years, as seen from the point of view of four small children from the ages of three to eleven. No chewing gum? Not a problem: Barbara found hers on the underside of the chair seats in the movie room at the Army base. No gas to drive to a big city for shopping, no readily-available clothing for three growing girls? Mom used the cloth sacks in which she bought flour. No magazines? There were catalogs, instead: "Monkey Ward" and "Sears and Sawbuck." And for entertainment, plenty of adventures, like taking the clothes to the washateria, going snipe-hunting, or driving to Mexico to buy cheap shoes.
Outside the Fence doesn't tell us much about the prisoners of war (after all, the kids didn't come in contact with them very often). But it does tell us a great deal about life in small American towns during an important period of American history, as seen by four curious children whose capacity for remembering small but revealing details is quite remarkable. The book is worth reading, if only for that. But there's more, for the family's deep capacity for loving is a theme that echoes on almost every page. They loved one another, but their love also extended to neighbors with whom they corresponded years after they left the town, and even to a scruffy little dog named Mickey, whom the kids smuggled into the car with them when they left Lordsburg for their next posting in Texas.
This is a book that brought back my own memories of that time: ration books and sugar substitutes and train travel during the war, when the trains were jammed with soldiers who made room on their laps for a sleepy little girl. It's a book that made me smile and made me grateful, once again, for all the men and women, at home and overseas, who sacrificed so much during that time. It made me grateful, as well, for people who are willing to share their stories with the rest of us.
Marilyn Snethen Clark is the oldest daughter in the family. She graduated from Texas Tech and earned her MA degree at the University of Colorado at Denver. She is a retired hgh school mathematics teacher and makes her home in Colorado. Barbara Snethen Leonard is the second daughter. She graduated from Texas Tech. She worked as a substitute teacher and now operates her own tax and accounting business. She makes her home in New Mexico. Carol Snethen Reed is the youngest in the family. She also graduated from Texas Tech. She had a graphic design business and was active in various communities where she has lived. She lives in New Mexico.
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