Margaret Vandercook and the Ranch Girls

Pam’s Pictorama Post: For fans of my writing on series books of the early 20th century, I am back at it today with something to say about the first few books of this grand and lesser known series. Like the majority of the books about The Camp Fire Girls I have most enjoyed (my posts devoted to these books can be found here, here, here and here), this series was written by Margaret Vandercook, or aka Margaret Love Sanderson.

The only photo I can find of Vandercook.

Now even in the age of the internet Ms. Vandercook is a bit of a cypher. Between 1912 and about 1924 she published several dozen books under her own name and the pen name above. (I can tell you she wrote the heck out of these books too.) The meagre biography that is available sites that she began writing professionally after the death of her husband, presumably to support herself and her son. Although there are some allusions to magazine work done after that time and a book of poetry published in the 1940’s, the internet provides no trail for what happened in the mid-1920’s that caused her to cease publication, at least under these names. I speculate that possibly she remarried and continued to publish work under that name is not attached to her. She lives until 1958 and given how prodigious her output was during the decade above it is hard to imagine that she ceased writing altogether. (I am unable to even find an obituary attached to her.)

For my money Vandercook is a very good writer and despite the fact that she was juggling a myriad of characters and storylines, every series and each book remains quite distinct. I have said in former blog posts (I have written about The Camp Fire Girls here, here and here) that it is a wonder she had time to eat or sleep when we consider how much she produced. I somehow imagine her spending mornings with the The Campfire Girls, lunch with The Ranch Girls, late afternoons with The Red Cross Girls and evenings with The Girl Scouts.

Merely because these are juveniles and series books they should not be dismissed lightly. I have come to realize that, at least for now, I am tracking her more as an author than I am following a series as such. And as beloved as my Judy Bolton books are, (I wrote about those here and here) these are in no way as formulaic. Working for a series of lesser publishers Vandercook may have had more freedom. There are indications that she plotted these way in advance and perhaps wrote them straight through, splicing them into volumes of the right length along the way, the storyline continuing with the turn of a page.

Margaret Vandercook has an odd habit of engaging you with a lead character for a few volumes and then utterly sidelining that character for one or more volumes. This allows her to explore and develop others more thoroughly. It is a bit jolting if you were really attached to that storyline though – you may not pick it back up for a volume or two.

As I turned my attention from The Camp Fire Girls to The Ranch Girls I expected to lose the sense of wonder and lore that had made The Camp Fire Girls novels so wonderful. They were filled with the ceremony, rites and values of the early days of that movement. To my happy surprise this series is infused instead with admiration for the women of the still young West – the frontier spirit and how it could be found in this subsequent generation.

Wyoming Dude Ranch of the same period.

This is best seen in volume two, The Ranch Girls’ Pot of Gold, when the main character, a young woman name Jack, is injured and lost. She struggles through a storm to find her way back to camp and there is a ringing passage about the plucky stuff today’s girls still have, much as the prior generation of westward bound women exemplified.

In the teens and early twenties the Western genre was of course a mainstay in literature and film. While much tamer then the days of its origin, it remained remote and the imagination seems like it was endlessly stoked by storytellers using it at this time. Tales of gold strikes, disputes over land and water rights and the hardship of the elements make up an almost endless backdrop of lives lived in a saddle and the “taming” of this part of the country. The myth of the west is endlessly embellished.

From The Ranch Girls at Rainbow Lodge.

The Ranch Girls embody these same themes and spirit with the addition of being three (and then four) young women left to fend for themselves on a ranch in Wyoming after the death of their father, their mother having been lost at a much earlier time – as evidenced by the fact that she is almost never mentioned. They live under the (somewhat) watchful eye of their guardian and ranch overseer, Jim, and ultimately a cousin who comes to live with them to the end of civilizing them. The adult supervision being benign enough to allow them to get into a fair amount of trouble and adventure.

It is interesting that only two are sisters, the third a cousin who has lived with them since since childhood, and then the adopted fourth. A wonky thing happens with their ages and somehow the youngest sister ages a few years and catches up to the others between volume one and two.

If The Camp Fire Girls allowed Vandercook to explore those rites and rituals, it also underscored a favorite theme of mine, the emergence of women during this period as they fought their way through the right to vote, but also the right to work, be educated and marry for something other than economic advantage. The Ranch Girls takes this theme and expands it even further. These somewhat untamed young women of the West are sort of noble examples of what girls growing up outside society can produce.

Rock Springs Wyoming, 1915. Wyomingtalesandtrails.com

Their broader and less hidebound perspective is shocking to many as they move through society in the East during a stint in boarding school. However when the series takes them to Europe, it is this easy going nature that almost makes them prey for bounders and fortune hunters. Their refreshing American West personas do make them great favorites among the more staid Europeans they meet along the way. (While many of these series books take girls from the East and first send them out West and then to Europe these obviously work in the reverse!)

Where from our 21st century perspective, a full hundred years later, this series is well meaning but misses the mark is the exploration of the relationship to Native Americans it undertakes. It is an underlying theme and storyline and I was frankly shocked by the racism that one main character, Olive, is the center of in the first few volumes. She is assumed to be half Native American and the prejudice that must have been very real for the day is portrayed as she is thought at best to be given a position as a maid.

Physics class at Carlyle school which sought to eradicate Indian culture.

While the Ranch Girls adopt Olive as one of their family, there is still the undeniable relief when in subsequent volumes she is discovered to be half Spanish instead, born of a wealthy father and European mother, both dead. Evidently the character was not going to be allowed to flourish unless she was white. Later in the series Vandercook is still working through resolving attitudes toward Native Americans with another character in the story. I believe that in reality she was very interested in making people recognize the culture of these native tribes and to respect them. However, given both the pressures of her publishers, the readers and being of her own time, by today’s standards it is ham handed at times and can still be painful to read. For me it is valuable reminder of the prevalence of such attitudes and useful to understand the attempts to change it which did not just happen with the stroke of a pen.

For me these volumes are rollicking good stories with a nod to the highs and lows of dime novels mixed with the loftier ideals of instilling new values in young women of the time. These books are asking them to take a new look at the world around them and to consider how the modern young woman might make a difference and change the world. These books helped, one story at a time.

Miss Pat: Pam’s Bedtime Reading

Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is hard to believe that it was only a week ago that I sat down to write about Miss Pat’s adventures in the juvenile series written in the first years of the 20th century, the first being published in 1915. After an announcement about the Presidential election was made I detoured and spent Sunday considering my deep affection for the voting process in our country. It’s been quite a week, but I don’t mind sinking back into thoughts of the early 20th century via fiction this morning. I hope you will grab another cup of coffee and join me.

The years between 1915 and 1918 in our country’s history have always interested me. The teens were years that seemed to hold great excitement in this country. Technological advancements abounded – photography change and improves rapidly and gives way to moving picture films – bicycles become early motorcycles and automobiles push horses out of the way. It was a wonderful, bright world and it just seemed to get better and better.

In these times, American women first rode bicycles, then drove automobiles and suffragettes fought for the vote. (I wrote about one series devoted just to women driving, The Automobile Girls¬†and it can be found here.) It was all evolving quickly it seems and I always feel a sort of giddy excitement radiating from it. For me 1916 is the pinnacle of this sensibility, all the hope and enthusiasm peaks – then 1917 comes, the US enters WWI, the 1918 influenza epidemic follows and the second half of the teens is a much more somber time. (Of course we’ve spent much time recently considering the epidemic of ’18, an attempt to read the tea leaves about our own Covid situation.)

By Ginther via the Bucks County Artist Database. Is that a black cat on her lap?

The first three volumes of the series, Miss Pat and Her Sisters, Miss Pat at School and Miss Pat in the Old World were all published in 1915. They aren’t long, but I assume they were written in the years before and the contract received for three at once.

Because it is the most accessible, I was able to obtain Miss Pat at School first by downloading it on Project Gutenberg for free. It appears to be the most popular volume and original copies and reprints are available. It is worth noting that the site Goodreads has been useful in figuring out the order of the books and how to acquire them. As noted in the first post, there is not so much as a Wikipedia entry about Pemberton Ginther or the books.

Arguably this second voulme,¬†Miss Pat at School, it is the best volume and a fair place to start if you aren’t a completist like I am – Ginther clearly drawing on her own experience at art school makes it more vivid. The Manhattan art school they attend is very reminiscent of The Arts Student’s League (which I attended briefly in the late 1980’s and in my life in the great before I walked past it on my way to and from my office daily), although I do not believe it is ever named as such. It is co-educational, unlike Moore College of Art which we know Pemberton Ginther attended, but she also took classes at the Philadelphia Academy which was probably a great deal like the Art Student’s League here.


Illustration for Miss Pat at School, by the author.

It is a classic book of its type – filled with dress up balls worthy of a Busby Berkley production by description; minor scholastic intrigue around a prize which the eldest sister, Elinor (whose nickname is Norn, never heard that name before and just love it), is hugely talented and who is a prime candidate to win.

These three young sisters living in New York alone and going to art school were clearly just on the edge of respectability for the times. They are orphaned and under the charge of Norn, who is probably about 18 or 19. For me these books are about that edge and the reality of the pressures of remaining respectable that women in particular at the time faced – as combined with the realities of making a living and being young and alone in the world.

Illustration by the author from a later volume, Miss Pat at Artemis Lodge

Many references are made to the specifics of the first novel and a great deal of plot that occurred in it and I was peeved I was reading them out of order. However Miss Pat and Her Sisters turned out to be harder to obtain. I was eventually rewarded for my diligence with a fairly inexpensive copy on eBay as I was unable to find it online.

Miss Pat and Her Sisters presents the three young women, recently orphaned at the death of their father, their mother longer deceased. We never get the backstory on either parent, nor their demise and find the three young women under the care of the eldest, but it is Miss Pat the middle sister, who engineers much of the plot and displaying the necessary pluck and drive to move the story.

The girls have inherited a lovely house, located in a small town which seems to be somewhere in northwestern New York state, from an aunt they didn’t know (is always good to kill off people no one will much miss), but sadly no money to maintain it. The book follows their endeavors to make money which include: candy making (hard work, but successful until someone steals the business out from under them, nefarious man!); giving music lessons; starting a library (also successful, but no one did the math to figure out that it wasn’t going to make enough to save their bacon); and taking in boarders – you can imagine how that might work out.

Drawing or illustration by Pemberton Ginther currently on sale on eBay.

Staying on the right side of being respectable is a large paradigm of this book. They feel they cannot let anyone know they need money which adds difficulty to earning it – being impoverished and without family evidently reflected poorly on young women at the time. Unlike ambitious young men their stories of self made fortune, women had fewer avenues.

Therefore, despite their enterprise their fortunes are ultimately largely turned by the appearance of a lost twin brother (yeah, we never really find out why or how they were separated so no spoiler alert there), and ultimately a marriage change their financial fortune. This of course is largely the only way women at the time really went from rags to riches. All in all, this volume only vaguely pays off on the promise of the delivery of the entire backstory. It disappoints in that sense.

The third volume, Miss Pat in the Old World, (this volume is available for free on Google Play books) takes them on a ship voyage to a Europe which turns out to be on the verge of war – sending them home abruptly. This volume has some marked racism so a heads up there. It is in part an interesting glimpse of the almost real time account of war beginning in Europe. I have to wonder if it reflects an actual experience of the author – it has that sense about it. In many ways I found it the thinnest of these. There are some passages of fairly wonky European history filling it out. I must say the ocean voyage was the most interesting part for me – the ship leaves Manhattan and makes a stop at Atlantic Highland, NJ near where I grew up and where I recently landed by ferry.

Miss Pat and Company Limited (also available for free on Google Play) returns us to the ancestral home, Greycroft. Miss Pat is back at her money making schemes and this time takes to raising chickens with mixed results. Norn has gone off to live in Manhattan with her husband to pursue a career as an artist, and this satisfying volume concentrates on Miss Pat and her younger sister, Judy (or Ju as she is known to family) residing in the aforementioned family home. Having removed the direness of her need for funds allows for a bit more fun in the enterprise. Miss Pat is able to glory in her pursuits and I feel well launched for the second half of the series.

Acquiring these books has been a bit difficult to map. I have a reprint of Miss Pat’s Holidays at Greycroft (book five, this in a reprint version I paid up for – they are available in a spotty way in reprinted paperbacks), Miss Pat at Artemis Lodge (book 6) safely tucked away on my iPad from Project Gutenberg, and Miss Pat’s Career (book 9) sitting on my desk. Original volumes can sometimes be found on eBay, or for significant amounts on other used book sites, but not consistently – in this sense Judy Bolton they are not. While waiting I began an entirely new series from the same period, centered around another orphaned but plucky young woman named Ruth Fielding, more to come on that.

Found this volume at a flea market a few weeks ago and started at the beginning of the series which is available on Google Play. I am excited for the period descriptions of film making.

However, even though they are quick reads I believe I have my bedtime reading more or less set until the beginning of the New Year – alleviating the daily concerns of 2020 before heading to the Land of Nod each night and setting me up for better dreams. I highly recommend it. Seems that Pemberton Ginther wrote a few other series and something called The Jade Necklace seems to have been very popular. I think between Ruth Fielding and these I will make it well into 2021, armed at bedtime no matter what the world decides to throw my way.