Red Cross Girls!

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.)

I came across an obit for Marjorie Vandercook clipped from an unknown, undated source – very little information seems to survive on her and this is the first obit I stumbled onto. It doesn’t supply much information, but I include it here for anyone else who might find it of interest. Of course they lead with her husband’s accomplishments and barely touch on her own contribution!

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.

Via witness2fashion.com as noted above.

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.

Dust jacket from volume 3.

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.

Illustration also from volume 3.

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.

September 1915: A group of nurses at Hamworth Hall which is serving as a Red Cross Hospital during WW1. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) via Time magazine.

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.

This may be the only accessible volume from the second half of the series, but you know I will try to ferret them out!

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.

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)

The Radio Girls and the Campfire Girls: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I stumbled on the four Radio Girl novels advertised in the back of a Ruth Fielding novel which must have been a reprint as these were published in the 1920’s and that volume dated from 1915. (You will find my brief survey of Ruth Fielding in a post here.) Just a note that all four books are available on ebooks – I believe I read them all on Google Play rather than Project Gutenberg.

Although this clutch of novels was later repackaged with the Campfire Girls novels, they are more of the breed of The Automobile Girls or The Moving Picture Girls, (my prior post on those can be found here) than what turn out to be rather distinct novels devoted to the Campfire Girls and that real world movement which was picking up speed at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It should be noted that it is spelled both as one word Campfire and two, Camp Fire, at various times. Without really being able to lock it down I would hazard to say that the one word spelling is the earlier spelling. The contemporary organization uses two words.) While all belong to what I think of as the plucky young girl genre, the idea of exploiting the new inventions of the times – the new world opening up with the advent of the automobile, films and also radio – is the jumping off point for each of these.

As I have written about previously, the thrill of a changing (modernizing one if you will) world is at the center of each of these – and the evolving role of young women, emerging from their teen years pretty much at the same time as the century itself. It reminds us that society evolved slowly and these novels go to some pains to show that these are nice and average girls, in this series they are fairly affluent. (Unlike Ruth Fielding and some other plucky young dames who are of the poor and/or orphaned variety.)

It is boys not girls climbing onto the roof on the cover of this magazine from the same period.

I deeply regret that the Radio Girls series is only the four volumes because I liked the characters and the writing, as well as finding the topic endearing. These novels were published in the early 1920’s although the dates when penned are hard to figure out since the first three volumes all have publication dates of 1922, the last volume 1924 – I deeply suspect that at least the first three volumes, or even all four – were produced all at once like a long book. These were written under the pen name of Margaret Penrose, a Stratemeyer Syndicate nom de plume for a number of authors writing under a single name. I cannot find further information about who actually wrote them although they do seem to have all been written by the same unidentified person.

While it may sound surprising to say, these are chocked full of the thrill and excitement of radio as it was dawning. It amazes me how much mileage the author gets out of it. Most charming for me is where Jessie and Amy (our protagonists) speculate on what the future might look like – a world with radios and telephones you carry around with you – television! (I could not help but wonder what they would have made of the iPad I was reading the book on in bed that evening.) They reflect on the radio’s place in a world that was still reeling from the establishment of the telegraph and telephone not all that long before. Telephones and radios were just being adopted by middle class American families and were still indeed novel.

At the heart of the plot of each is a mystery of sorts – kidnapped girls, raising needed funds for a worthy cause, or perhaps alternatively being stranded on the water, an island or on a sinking boat and the radio helps save the day! It is worth noting that the author goes to great pains to make Jessie and Amy, but especially Jessie, the master of all things radio, where she outshines both her college aged brother and his friends.

Jessie’s mother, Momsey, tends to fret a bit about the radio – however it does seems that there was the very real possibility of the set-ups attracting lightening strikes so she wasn’t exactly foolish in her fears. (It comes to pass in one of the volumes where a fire is started in a house via lightening strike and an open circuit on a radio set-up.) Meanwhile, Jessie eschews purchasing a kit for her radio and uses instructions (from a magazine I believe) to set up her rig – which includes climbing a tree and out a window in front of their large home, in order to string the wires. In the end, both mother and father are in full support of the endeavor. Once an acoustical horn is acquired for the radio (at first each person had to wear headphones) the whole family and their guests endeavor to listen ongoing – even a ticketed demonstration for the community to raise funds for a hospital project takes place in the first book.

In a later volume the young girls get to perform on the radio too and we get a glimpse of the mix of the behind-the-scenes performers, professional and amateur vying for radio time. Kim turned me onto some of the radio magazines that existed at the time, ones that seem to mix the upgrades in equipment and mechanics with the emerging star power of the day – sort of a film star magazine for radio. These are very appealing and I may pick up a few on eBay and wander through them.

How the Radio Girls are repackaged as Campfire Girls and the republication schedule of these is a bit of a mystery to me – the original copyright is on the volumes I read. I see some evidence that maybe the subsequent publication was issued in the 1930’s. Each was originally published with the double name title convention such as, The Radio Girls on Station Island or The Wireless from Steam Yacht. Campfire Girls replaces Radio Girls in the titles and they are repackaged and presumably sent out again to another generation of young readers by the new publisher. I can only imagine that they must have been somewhat confusing to girls who were expecting not just plucky heroines, but some actual reference to the Campfire Girls – those novels are chocked full of Campfire Girl lore.

While a tad resentful at first that my Radio Girls were subsumed into another entity, I gathered a few early volumes of the Camp Fire Girls on my iPad. I hope to eventually see if the original characters and story lines of the Radio Girls were picked up – they do not appear to be. However, the very different charm of those lured me in and in a subsequent post I will write about the first volumes I have tackled in that very long and interesting series, the genesis of the series which predates the Radio Girls with the earliest volumes coming out around 1912. As I like to start at the beginning of things I am still in the early volumes published before 1920, so more to discover and come on that.