When Ben Stevens ’46 wrote and performed his operetta recounting his experiences as a boy during World War II, he gave the audience a glimpse of his teenage self: a bright, musical and awkward student trying to fit in at Andover. This operetta inspired Ames Sheldon, his niece, to publish “Eleanor’s Wars,” a novel written by Sheldon that describes American life during World War II through the lens of a tough mother, Eleanor, and her adolescent son, Nat, who is undergoing the rigors of life at Andover.
Sheldon wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “After September 11 when commercial air traffic was halted, as I listened to military planes flying overhead at night, I felt scared, wondering about what was going on – would we be attacked again? – and that got me thinking what it must have been like on the home front during WWII. At that point I realized I had a bigger story to tell – about war – in addition to the story about Nat.”
“Eleanor’s War” revolves around Nat and his mother, Eleanor, an ambulance driver during World War I who marries a French surgeon she encountered while on the front. After her husband dies in the war, Eleanor returns home to the U.S. and remarries to an Andover alumnus from the class of 1915. They have children and their sons attend Andover during the 1940s. Eleanor shields her children from her involvement in World War I and the surgeon. Over the course of the novel, all of Eleanor’s secrets are unraveled, disrupting the family dynamic.
“Ultimately ‘Eleanor’s Wars’ is about the horrors of war, the impact of war on those who serve and also on their families,” said Sheldon.
In her novel, Sheldon also touches on issues lurking under cover of daily life in the 1940s, including bullying in school, homophobia and sexism.
“Bullying, homophobia and sexism are topics that interest me. In the past, it seems to me, people assumed that [these topics] were simply the way things were and therefore [the topics] were pretty well accepted,” said Sheldon.
“I don’t believe [Andover] was any better or worse than other boarding schools during the 1940s. I think it was probably typical of many boarding schools at that time,” she continued.
In order to portray an accurate representation of life at Andover during World War II, Sheldon consulted her uncles, Ben Stevens and Pete Stevens ’44, and other alums from the period.
“I asked a number of Andover alums from the 1940s and 1950s about any hazing that occurred at Andover during their day and all of them said there was nothing significant. However, my uncle Pete told me about a pretty awful hazing incident that actually happened to him, and I put that in my novel,” said Sheldon.
Although Sheldon grew up around Andover alumni and had an understanding of what life is like at boarding school before she began writing the novel, she had to do extensive research to fully and factually represent life at Andover.
“I started doing research for this novel 15 years ago. I visited campus a few times and met with Ruth Quattlebaum in the Andover archives and I spent a couple of days in the archives reading material from the 1940s and making copies of stuff to take home with me,” said Sheldon. “A classmate of my uncle Ben loaned me his yearbook, which was full of useful information about life on campus during the period. My other uncle, Pete, is still living and I picked his brain many times, asking questions.”
Sheldon then transferred her knowledge of Andover to her novel, allowing her to characterize Nat, who struggles to pursue his dreams away from home during a time of chaos and fear.
Sheldon said, “Nat doesn’t want to go to Andover but his father decided he will attend the school. He is overwhelmed at first and he hates it his first year but eventually Nat finds his way at Andover; he comes to feel like he’s a part of the community, he has a role to play. The school is very intellectually challenging for him at first but since he’s very bright the challenges stretch him and he appreciates that. In other words, Andover is quite a positive experience for him by the time the novel ends.”
When asked about her own thoughts on the private boarding school experience, Sheldon wrote, “I think very highly of [Andover]. The private boarding school experience at [Andover] was ultimately quite positive for my character Nat, for both of my uncles, for my grandfather. My brother went to Andover for a year but it wasn’t a good fit for him. I never went to boarding school myself, but I went to a private girls day school which was very academically challenging and I loved it.”
Sheldon hopes to represent the perspectives that get lost in history and, in this case, she hoped to document the perspective of people at home during the war.
“War is hell; the impact of participating in war continues throughout the life of those involved directly in the war and the experience of war impacts their families into the next generation and beyond. Also, secrets inevitably – eventually – come out. Honesty with disclosure up front is much wiser and healthier for everyone,” she said.