The Camp Fire Girls at Top ‘o the World

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Another pastime that will remind me of our long Covid year will be discovering and tearing my way through a large swath of Camp Fire Girls novels. While my past reading obsessions included all the adult fiction of Francis Hodgson Burnett (discussed in one of several posts here), the short works and then novels of Edna Ferber (found here), and Judy Bolton Girl Detective (first of two posts here) saw me through the sleepless nights during the early months of the pandemic, it will be The Camp Fire Girls that will bring back memories of recent months.

Illustration from The Camp Fire Girls at Driftwood Heights – none of the illustrations in this series is worthy of note!

I will never think of sitting in the ER at Lenox Hill Hospital waiting for a hand surgeon to work on my broken fingers on Memorial Day without also thinking about The Camp Fire Girls at Driftwood Heights, which I read on my phone throughout that long afternoon.

Reading about these plucky young heroines who are endlessly resourceful while constantly poking at the confines of what a respectable young woman could be at the dawn of the 20th century has provided the right stuff for managing through our own trying times.

I have been tackling this reading project in as organized a way as the acquisition of these aged books allows – most are at or just beyond the centennial of their having been penned, after all. I have been fortunate to find the lion’s share available for free on Project Gutenberg or other free, or virtually free, platforms. (Walmart e-books anyone? Internet Archive.com?) The book I am pulling out today is an exception and in an effort to lay down some tracks for a future reader with the same endeavor in mind I am making some notes here. It had to be purchased in its original form, busted spine, and a bit dear.

This series of books is nothing short of sprawling in scope. There seem to be maybe three main authors (and other lesser entries) over several decades. In an effort to follow story lines I have taken one author, Margaret Vandercook and read all under her name, and then all under her alternate nom de plume, Margaret Love Sanderson. When I have written previously about these novels (oh gosh, here, here and here) it was all the Vandercook novels – which I will label a superior group. I was very sorry to finish reading them and even after two generations of Camp Fire Girls, I could have happily stuck around for a third. They are her earliest efforts and I think she took what she learned about pacing and applied it to the latter series – these teens grow up much more slowly.

The series which I believe she intended to wrap up with one more volume, ends with the primary heroine, Bettina, leaving off the life of Washington debutante to follow settlement house work on Manhattan’s upper east side. These books play constantly with the shifting roles of women and forcefully promotes the interaction between the wealthy and the poor in associations and ways that were clearly still controversial at the time of writing. I would have liked to cap the series with a final book and the last two and my most beloved characters settled with their choice of mate and set on the path of their adult lives, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Alas! (Wikipedia sites her as the author of 21 books in the series – /i have found about two thirds – where are the others?)

I actually run (now walk0 past the East Side Settlement House most mornings! This was where Bettina was learning settlement work in the final volume of that series.

Margaret was so prolific I cannot imagine how she had time to eat or sleep between about 1915 and 1921, let alone raise her son alone after her husband died. While pounding out these volumes at an astounding rate, it appears she kept at least three other robust series underway The Red Cross Girls, The Ranch Girls, and contributed to The Girl Scout series as well. I would very much like to get to the roots of her story, but I don’t see anything beyond bare bones in my searches to date. After this frenzy of work in the teens and into the early twenties, she seems to have stopped writing novels, done some magazine work and disappeared, although living until 1958. Re-married? Other pen names?

To further confuse the reader, Margaret had certain character names which she used constantly. Bettys and Mollys (as well as Mollies and Pollys) proliferate. I include lists of the books by story lines I have followed below in the hope that it might prove helpful to someone in the future. I wonder how even she kept it all straight.

The Camp Fire Girls at Top ‘o the World (a great title, right?) is an outlier. Published in 1916 (my volume sweetly inscribed for Christmas of 1918) it introduces a new set of characters (Mollie Wren is our girl and she is of the from a poor, large family model, but with great Camp Fire Girl grit), who are gathered rather randomly from all over the country for a summer at the farm of authoress Julia Allen – not sure it is made clear where, but somewhere called Lakewood, most likely in Wisconsin.

It is a somewhat plot heavy volume – Margaret S. didn’t shy away from plot! A stray Russian girl from a New York factory is thrown into the mix (this isn’t her first Russian immigrant girl character, which makes me think it was part of the culture at the time – my own grandparents showing up on these shores as young adults in those years), a Southern belle and a wealthy New York niece who is a bit older and more sophisticated than the others. Dialect is rendered liberally and sometimes painfully around the Russian girl and Southerner. I won’t give more of the plot than this, but it is an enjoyable ride.

It would appear that this is the only volume produced for these characters and for whatever reason it seems to be an isolated volume. This probably explains its relative scarcity. I would love to find a way to donate this and another hard to find volume (The Camp Fire Girls in Merrie England) somewhere to have them scanned and made available for other completists like myself. Give a shout if you are acquainted with the process.

A sadly insipid frontispiece from The Campfire Girls at Top ‘o the World.

In closing a quick shout out to Jennifer White at whose wonderful eBay guide list to these books can be found at her blog Series Books for Girls and who kindly answered a burning question I had about a missing volume mentioned at the close of The Camp Fire Girls at Drift at Driftwood Heights The Camp Fire Girls at Sweetwater Ranch – which is a ghost volume that, never published. Her blog Series Books for Girls contains some all important lists including one that appears to be the complete list for the Margaret Love Sanderson books above. The list below is from Wikipedia and is for the Margaret Vandercook ones. (Please note that Wikipedia has the order wrong on the last two volumes – it is correct as below.)

‘The Camp Fire Girls Books by Margaret Vandercook

The Camp Fire Girls at Sunrise Hill (1913)
The Camp Fire Girls Amid the Snows (1913)
The Camp Fire Girls in the Outside World (1914)
The Camp Fire Girls Across the Seas (1914)
The Camp Fire Girls’ Careers (1915)
The Camp Fire Girls in After Years (1915)
The Camp Fire Girls on the Edge of the Desert (1917)
The Camp Fire Girls at the End of the Trail (1917)
The Camp Fire Girls Behind the Lines (1918)
The Camp Fire Girls on the Field of Honor (1918)
The Camp Fire Girls in Glorious France (1919)
The Camp Fire Girls in Merrie England (1920)
The Camp Fire Girls at Half Moon Lake (1921)
The Camp Fire Girls by the Blue Lagoon (1921)

Ruth Fielding

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am sitting down to start this post with the first three books in the Ruth Fielding series under my belt, as well as having made a good start on Volume 4. Unlike some of the recent entries in my forays into juvenile fiction of the early 20th century, this series, part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is of the multiple author variety all under the nom de plume of Alice B. Emerson. Titles 1-19 are written by someone named W. Burt Foster and so those I write about today are all his. (I cannot find tracks of him other than these books, at least not with a casual search.) For anyone I manage to engage in reading these – the excellent news is that they are widely available online for free in a combination of Project Gutenberg and Google Play Books.

This series of 30 books starts in 1913, making it even earlier than the Miss Pat series and as extensive a series as Judy Bolton. (For new comers, a quick gander at Pictorama posts devoted to those series and you can find the Miss Pat ones here and here and two on Judy Bolton here and here.) Wikipedia makes note of the fact that Ruth ultimately marries and that this is unusual in the Stratemeyer universe. Although of course the aforementioned Judy Bolton, another Stratemeyer alum, marries as well.

The main character, Ruth, is of the plucky orphan variety and we meet her in Volume 1 as a young girl who has just lost her father, the second of her parents to die – no time is spent on any details around this. She is sent to live with a distant uncle on her mother’s side who is billed as a miser – a word we don’t hear that much any longer, but surely has it remains relevant today. He seems to get over that fairly early in the series, at least to some degree, although the moniker does stick. But the first volume shows her mettle and despite a certain modest reserve and even shyness, she manages to rescue people with quick thinking and initiative, more than once.

Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall, or Solving the Campus Mystery (Volume 2) is my favorite one so far. I am reminded of a book that came into my possession as a pre-teen that must have been written in the 30’s or 40’s. It was a novel about a girl going away to boarding school and who modeled her life there on these kinds of early stories – like this volume, midnight suppers and secret societies abound. It must have come to me in some box of books or something and for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it. However, as I read this book the scenes come back to me vividly and I remember my own fascination with these rites as a result. However, my life was a public school one, not boarding school so I never got to explore what I am sure was a much different contemporary reality. It was written harking back to the time of stories like this.

Snow shoeing is a frequent necessity or recreation in the snowier volumes.

The third volume (Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp, or Lost in the Backwoods) takes us to a Snow Camp (not a term I am familiar with but seems self-explanatory) somewhere near the Canadian border. (Ruth appears to reside somewhere in the northwest part of New York State in a town I cannot find if real called Cheslow, and near a town Kim thought he invented called Lumberton. It would appear that Burt Foster, aka Alice B. Emerson, lived in that region as well. See Kim’s illustrated novel The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley for his version of Lumberton.) Here we explore snow shoeing, much ice skating, toboggans and being lost in a blizzard. Ruth turns out to be an unusually resourceful young girl, especially in the outdoors. She proves to be a strong swimmer and there is a girl, generally known as The Fox, who is her nemesis despite that fact that Ruth has saved her from drowning in two out of the four volumes I have read thus far. Mary, The Fox, is utterly ungrateful. I’m sure somewhere in the next 26 volumes she will change her ways however and see the light however.

Volume 4, Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point or Nita, the Girl Castaway, takes the gang (a small gaggle of girls and a more or less complementary bunch of boys) to the seashore where they take a runaway under their wing. And in the fifth volume, a lesser favorite, Ruth and her friends take a trip out west. Kim has always warned that out west was usually the end of a series and while it doesn’t kill off Ruth or the series it does make for a lesser book in my opinion.

While these stories are less formulaic than some of the others I have read (not that I dislike those either – nothing wrong with a good formula really), you can count on Ruth to get in the path of at least one, usually more, wild animals in each story. As I round the bend now on Volume 6 I can vouch for her escaping encounters with various large cats in several volumes – puma, mountain lion and something called a catamount which appears to be a type of cougar – and in addition I remember a bear as well. Sometimes she kills the the animal, sometimes someone else does (at the last moment before she herself is killed), but she is indeed a resourceful and one brave little miss!

From a future volume, but a good illustration of Ruth doing her thing.

Ruth’s story lines also favor the finding of lost strong or money boxes – if you lost one or had one stolen, you’d want her on the case because, while these are not detective stories, she has a way of retrieving them again and again for their owners. Seems like banks still weren’t entirely in favor back at the turn of the century, and many of these plots mean that someone has lost their entire life savings in such a missing or stolen box. To date these have been stolen, swept away by floods and buried in an avalanche thus far in my reading.

I will warn that there is some dreadful racist descriptions in a few of these volumes. Unlike Judy Bolton trying, if awkwardly, to figure out her relationship to the Native Americans she encounters, Ruth lives in an extremely white world taking place several decades earlier. Poor, occasionally indigent, people are largely the greatest diversity in these books, but on the one or two occasions she encounters (at least thus far in my reading) anyone of color the descriptions are crude.

If the teens were an era of casual banking, it was equally a time of casual parenting. Stray children abound in these stories – orphans for the most part, but also children who seem to wander away from families, living with other relatives or even strangers; occasionally children stolen or spirited away as well. While in part this can be attributed to the page-turning novel genre which these hail from, I think it was also somewhat a reality of the time. There just seem to be stories from that generation about this uncle who went to live with neighbors or that child sent off that even Kim and I know between us. I remember a few years ago when my mom casually mentioned that my grandmother had a brother who was “stolen by gypsies from the backyard” and never seen again! First, how could I have reached middle age and never heard that family tale and second – gypsies?

Ruth in the gypsy camp here.

Volume 8, Ruth Fielding and the Gypsies; or The Missing Pearl Necklace, is the book I am immersed in as I wrap this first part post up. You’ll have to wait to hear whether or not I think she gives the Romany a fair shake or not. (Spoiler alert – mixed bag really.) I have just been told that Jazz at Lincoln Center will take the coming two holiday weeks off and I intend to happily immerse myself in Miss Fielding’s further adventures from bed, in my pj’s, while listening to music and drinking smoking hot coffee!