Many of us know and love Lindgren as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, Ronia the Robber's Daughter, and so many more. But in 1939, she was an unpublished aspiring author, a wife and mother; an ordinary 32-year-old in Stockholm when war broke out.
“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it,” begins the diary she kept throughout the Second World War.
Her writing depicts what life was like for everyday citizens as she details her personal struggles, dealing with parenthood and alluding to a marriage crisis alongside her reflections on good, evil, and war. The simple but evocative language, as in the quote below, already shows the talent she'd put to use as a children's writer just a couple of years after the war.
“Today was Karin's sixth birthday. Today, the Germans reached the English Channel. And today summer arrived, wonderful and painfully lovely to take in, with all one's senses.”
Lindgren talks a lot about coffee rations, reflecting the importance of the drink for Swedes. The country actually stockpiled coffee until well into the 1990s, in case of war. The fear was that civil unrest could be likely if Swedes were left without their caffeine.
But although she could easily have focused on her concerns about her family, Lindgren comes across as a deeply empathetic person who was determined to understand not just what was happening in terms of global politics but also how the affected individuals might feel. She challenges herself to imagine how civilians in Germany might feel, or the mothers of young soldiers.
— Emma Löfgren (@ekjlofgren) April 23, 2019
Although Lindgren wrote most of her novels in shorthand, the diaries were written longhand as the Astrid Lindgren Company's Cilla Nergårdh explained at our Stockholm meetup, which suggests they were intended to be published. Book Club members debated whether Lindgren had been writing with the general public as her intended audience, or simply for friends and family – at one point she mentions reviewing her earlier diaries with her young daughter Karin.
The diaries have only recently been translated into English by Sarah Death, who spoke to The Local about her experience working on them, and the questions she would have loved to ask Lindgren.
Many Book Club members commented on the guilt Lindgren seemed to feel about her relative comfort at a time of suffering, as well as how well informed she was about events not only across Europe but on other continents too.
Book Club member Karen Helmeyer wrote: “It was an interesting perspective on the war. It was very mixed — comments about routine happenings (kids are sick, we had dinner with friends) together with observations and concerns about the world war. She seemed very well versed on the details of the war, more than the average person.”
“I enjoyed the book and would recommend it,” wrote Book Club member Mark Gustafson. “Other than Sweden’s neutrality and criticisms of profiteering and bowing to Germany, I knew little about Sweden’s role during the Second World War.”
“The fear of Russia loomed large. To overtly support their Nordic neighbors brought the likelihood of the war coming Sweden. Scarcity resulted in rationing and hoarding but fortunately not starvation. Astrid Lindgren seemed ill at ease with her family prospering while so many suffered. I enjoyed reading of her visiting Stockholm’s parks and other aspects of the city.”
Reader Glenn Carlson agreed that the diaries deepened his knowledge of Swedish history, and even his own personal history.
“The War Diaries filled in so many blanks in my knowledge of the '39 -'45 period in Sweden. These were things neither my parents nor my grandfather would ever tell me or discuss with me during the war or after, notwithstanding our many family members living there, mostly in Kalmar,” he said.
“I was born on June 10th, 1940. As far back as I can remember my parents told me that the 10th was the day Norway surrendered to Hitler and Mussolini declared war on Britain and its allies. Astrid Lindgren wrote about that day with what I feel is a sensitivity for Norway that my parents did not express. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention!”
What to read next: If you enjoyed Astrid Lindgren's war diaries, I recommend reading Naples '44 by Norman Lewis. It's a diary by a British intelligence officer posted in southern Italy and although the subject matter is certainly different from Lindgren's, it has a similar charm and skill at capturing a moment in history. In another world, I can imagine Lewis and Lindgren regaling each other with their wartime tales.
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