Socialism, Pacifism and Then War: Politics in the Campfire Girls

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Preemptive apologies for those of you who don’t share my passion for early 20th Century young adult literature, because today I am posting about the Campfire Girls as they head into WWI. Also, a warning that I give away some key plot points so be forewarned if you are reading as a review and perhaps come back later after reading if that concerns you.

I have written about this series before (those posts can be found here and here), but this series is a bit hard to get your hands around because as I can best piece it together several authors were contributing books published at the same time so you think you are reading them in order, but you have picked up another story line. Also, many of the sources have listed the order of the books incorrectly further confounding my efforts to read them in some sort of order. The good news, and there is a lot of good news, is that they are widely available by free download, although I have been forced to read them on a variety of platforms – some decidedly less friendly than others, but after all, free is free. Most are available on the very user friendly Project Gutenberg website.

Camp Fire Girls, circa 1918.  Photo courtesy of Latah County Historical Society.

My best effort to rectify this was to find one author and follow her and I have been reading the books of Margaret Vandercook, aka Margaret Love Sanderson (warning however, that nom de plume was also used by a Emma Keats Speed Sampson), who was known as The Queen of the Camp Fire writers according to a brief Wikipedia entry, one which is especially useful in correctly listing her books. (Love you Goodreads, but you don’t have it straight and neither does the Wikipedia entry under The Campfire Girls overall.) There are 21 Camp Fire Girls books to her name (although oddly Wikipedia only lists 14) and she also wrote the Ranch Girls, Red Cross Girls and Girl Scout novels.

Her bio is brief, born in 1877 in Kentucky, she lived until 1958. Married for eight years to John Filkin Vandercook who eventually became the first President of the United Press Association, so we will assume he was a writer too. After his death in 1908 she started to write professionally and, man, she was prolific – churning out several of these novels a year. Strangely though, she appears to stop writing abruptly, at least in this genre and as far as I can tell, in the early 1920’s. I wonder if she remarried at that time and no longer needed to support herself and her son? A mention is made of magazine work, articles, poems and stories. Also, perhaps they run longer since as I pointed out the list I am working from appears to be incomplete.

From Campfire Girls at Camp Keewaydin

There’s a lot of charm in these books and I really took a bath in the lore and accoutrements of the Camp Fire Girls as outlined in the early books – rings, costumes, poems and all. While this remains a backdrop Vandercook stealthily moves us into other territory and as the century turns from the early and mid-teens to 1918 and beyond she is writing stories that are almost contemporaneous accounts of the country preparing for and entering in WWI. There is a strange sense in reading them one after the other, that perhaps they were written in larger chunks and then parsed into pieces that make up the novels. The story continuity from one to another is seamless and more like the next chapter in a book than a new book in many of these.

From Campfire Girls at Camp Keewaydin

Much to my surprise in The Camp Fire Girls at the End of the Trail (1917) Socialism pops up. The Camp Fire Girls have been out west for a volume already (also, we are on the second generation of girls here and Vandercook wised up and they age a bit more slowly in the second half of the series) and the younger brother of one is sent to stay with them to recover from the sort of mysterious wasting diseases that seemed to permeate the pre-antibiotic world. He is portrayed as an usual young man, only about 15 years old, and among his peculiarities it emerges that he is a Socialist.

Group portrait of Socialist Party members gathered for the Socialist Convention and Eugen V. Debs picnic in Canton, Ohio 1918.

In the first volume of their time out west there is an effort to address the situation for Native Americans which I think was sincere, if ham-handed and wrong by today’s standards. Socialism, which is addressed in the form of young Billy getting involved with railroad union organizing. Seems Billy had gotten an earful of Socialist propaganda from a Russian immigrant working on his father’s farm in New Hampshire. He finds his way into an enclave of railroad workers and becomes a leader among them – but pushing a non-violent agenda among. It ends badly, with violence, for which he is ultimately blamed, but in a glossing over it is quickly remedied by his family’s wealth and connections. It manages to be both sympathetic and yet illustrate what was probably the more accepted feeling of the day about unions and Socialism. While it seemed a bit surprising, again, these were novels that were addressing the current events of the day in almost real time.

End paper for Camp Fire Girls at the End of the Trail via Project Gutenberg.

Without ruining the plot, I will just say that his pacifism is treated with some thoughtfulness considering how enthusiastically we are told Americans generally geared up for that war. It is fair to say it is presented as an untenable view, but not without sympathy for his position. Frankly, I was surprised and would have expected these books to be full only of endorsement for our entrance into the war.

Vandercook wasn’t done with this character yet and uses him to address pacifism in the next volume as the country tunes up for entry into the war. Published in 1918 The Camp Fire Girls Behind the Lines still has them in the West, but now near a newly established army training base in the country, somewhere in Southern California. Billy has been joined by his brother who is anxious to enlist. Billy, on the other hand, is a vocal pacifist and decries the military approach to solving the world’s problems. He wiles his way into working at the army base and makes friends with the fellows working there, becoming very popular with them. It would seem he intends to infiltrate them and then convert them to his way of thinking, but again, things take a very different turn in the end.

In case you are wondering, these are just sub-plots in these novels which still very much manage to be about this clutch of Campfire Girls and told from their perspective.

Finally, I found myself at the group of novels which deal directly with the war and takes a slightly smaller group of girls to France to help with the reclamation work which evidently began there even before the war ended. First I will volunteer that I thought this was likely where I would get off this trolley because this seemed like an absurd idea and this sort of girls in the Red Cross thing was profoundly uninteresting to me. (As I said to Kim, these kinds of books going to war is a bit like most series going out west, the beginning of the end.)

However, I learned that there is historical precedent for a small number of self-financed women who actually did this – driving cars (a skill which many of their French counterparts did not possess), bringing first aide, childhood education to a generation of orphans and semi-orphans, and all sorts of similar endeavors – a small but determined league of women did do this work taking on six month hitches at a go. (All of the photos snatched here can be found on Mashable, 1914-1918 Working Women of WWI here. A rather excellent entry about some of this history can be found here on the Morgan Library site from one of their exhibitions.)

Women shoveling snow from the road Paris France

Therefore the storyline was an acceptable one and doesn’t entirely stretch credulity as I originally thought. (Learning these somewhat forgotten bits of history along the way is one of the decided byproducts of reading these books.) Again, these books were written almost in real time so I would think she did know what would be believable and acceptable to her audience. If the idea that the Campfire Girls were establishing their first roots in France this way has any historical reality or not.

Women grease and inspect the signals Gare du Nord Paris France

Perhaps more to the point Vandercook makes these compelling stories and her descriptions of war torn France have the ring of truth and reality. Although well traveled there is no indication that she actually was in Europe during or immediately following the war and I assume it was newsreels and news accounts that informed her writing – and the tales of these women abroad must have captured her imagination.

Women making missiles in a munitions factory England

Not surprisingly, there is a strong underlying patriotism to these stories, as to be expected. Then again though, there are details which we get from this real time account – the feeling of Paris on the day the armistice was declared; the reaction to Wilson as part of the Peace Conference there which is fascinating and wonderful. She writes about a post-war ambivalence between American and French troops which must have been a real issue. of the day. Incidentally, my pandemic pals, the 1918 Influenza epidemic is entirely ignored.

It is a bit painful to read about as their hopes for a lasting world peace is detailed and never suspecting that we would be back at war a scant twenty plus years later. Sadly we know what the future held and that these hopes for a lasting world peace were not to be.

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