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.

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)