Pam’s Pictorama Post: I think I will always look back on this year and a half (heading into two year) period as my plucky young woman literary fiesta. It probably isn’t a coincidence that this, difficult period of time has made these stories of achievement under great duress appealing. Working my way through the work of author Margaret Vandercook in particular has been wonderful and these books have contributed to a longer reading project which builds on the changing role of women during the first part of the 20th century. Nursing on the front lines during the war, even driving ambulances there, was an enormous departure for young American women and according to these books they also lead the way for young European women to do the same.
As long-standing readers know, I started my journey with Margaret Vandercook via her many volumes of Camp Fire Girls books, took on the somewhat more raucous Ranch Girls next and am now investigating and celebrating the ten volumes devoted to the Red Cross Girls. (Some of those prior posts can be found here, here and here.)
My first question was, did young women really do this? I mean did young women volunteer and head out to Europe to work with the Red Cross? Seems a bit crazy and it’s a bit hard to say. Obviously Red Cross nurses served in Europe during WWI, about 300 lost their lives working on the front lines. It isn’t clear what qualifications were expect however and if young women who had “a nursing course” or even less experience actually went over such as our heroines did, is hard to track down. Nurses, it seems for the most part, were from working class or rural backgrounds although some were indeed from affluent families, a mix like we have in volume one. So let’s assume that the role of our heroines is relatively realistic for starters.
Certainly the war that was being described was more or less torn from the headlines of the day since these books were published starting in 1915. Four women start out from New York City on a ship heading to Europe. Their first adventures and a few plot points that will reach several volumes occur onboard ship before making landing in Britain which is their first stop before nursing wounded British soldiers in France. (Vandercook must have had several of these books outlined to some degree, dropping in opportunities to come back and layer on plot in future volumes.)
I wondered how Vandercook would handle the sheer horror of nursing on the front lines with the sort of story line she generally develops and I report that she does an admirable job of it. Admirably, somehow she neither downplays the dangers and horrors of war, nor does she dwell too much on the gore. Of course the tales of valor are overblown, but after all these are fictional volumes for younger readers.
Plucky indeed these young women are too. While the Campfire Girls had an interesting creed and much ceremony, the Ranch Girls just had a sense of the wild west where they had their origin. The Red Cross girls fall somewhere in the middle – there is a code for behavior and there are references to their need, like soldiers, to follow orders and fall in with the greater good for the whole. It would seem there is a creed – whether it had a basis in reality or not I cannot really say, but I would imagine that the spirit was there at a minimum although it isn’t as codified, nor as lore filled, as that of The Campfire Girls.
It is interesting to be reminded that the Red Cross nurses and doctors were of course technically neutral by definition. The United States would not enter the war until 1917 and the ethos of the Red Cross was (is) apolitical. However, these were stories going out to an American readership and the clear lines of sympathy for the British and French soldiers and a fear of the Germans is evident.
As of the volume I am currently finishing – The Red Cross Girls with the Italian Army – the fifth and published in May of 1918, there is no mention of the influenza epidemic which would certainly take headlines later that year although I assume will find its way into subsequent volumes. The first four volumes form a story arc and the fifth, harder to obtain as an e-book, seems to mostly to be tying up some loose ends and perhaps planting some new plots for the remaining second half of the series. The United States will be entering the war soon, presumably in the next volume.
I am reminded that we are reading these books with the benefit of historical hindsight. Marjorie Vandercook had no way of knowing that it wouldn’t be be that many years before the world was back at war, barely a generation, and the fictional futures she thought she was securing for her heroines would perhaps be less than untroubled. It is hard not to read them knowing of the tumult of the political upheavals of Russia and that the sons of this generation would be the soldiers of that next enormous war.
The first three volumes of the not quite five I have thus consumed, were the most compelling with The Red Cross Girls in Belgium being my favorite. I found the novel concerning their time in Russia, The Red Cross Girls with the Russian Army, a bit hair raising actually. What on earth were they thinking going to Russia? How did they even get there? Of course you should read it, but I am warning you, it puts you a bit on the edge of your seat.
As alluded to above, the first four volumes were easily available on Project Gutenberg as free e-books. After a bit of searching I located the current volume on the Internet Archive site. While they e-books don’t seem to be technically downloadable they are still easily read online and they have bailed me out on obscure volumes before. I think I will have some trouble acquiring the remaining volumes of the series which seem to follow the American army through other parts of Europe and then home. With any luck, I will be able to report on those in subsequent posts.