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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.