This week we’re going beyond the usual scope of this space for a look at a girls’ series from what can be considered the “pre-history” of Young Adult literature.
Background: The Ruth Fielding stories were published by Cupples & Leon from 1913 until 1934. As with many series, “Alice B. Emerson” is a pen name for a number of authors, including Mildred Wirt Benson, who penned the final eight titles in the series. Benson’s, as we discussed a few weeks back, most notable work was creating Nancy Drew, and Ruth Fielding and her chums’ adventures can clearly be seen as the predecessors to Nancy and the gang.
Unlike Nancy Drew and many of the series that followed in the 1930s and beyond, in which the progression of time is unimportant and the characters never age, Ruth Fielding’s plots adhere to a strict chronology, as she advances through high school, college, a career and finally marriage and a family of her own.
And Ruth’s progression is strikingly modern: orphaned (of course!) she is sent to live with her mean uncle, befriends the wealthy Helen and Tom Cameron, and eventually wins over her uncle, who sends her to boarding school with Helen. While still in high school, Ruth becomes a successful screenwriter (or in the language of the day “motion-picture scenarist”) and goes on to college with Helen, where she meets Jennie “Heavy” Stone (yes, because she is fat), and the trio is inseparable until World War I breaks out, and the three girls selflessly volunteer to go to Europe with the Red Cross.
After the war, Ruth returns to the United States and founds The Ruth Fielding Film Company, and becomes a famous actress AND director. The later volumes deal with the pressure to choose between marriage and career (spoilers: she gets to do both!) and the company’s transition to “talkies”.
The Plot: Ruth has been assigned to a field hospital in Clair, while Helen and Heavy have remained behind in Paris. Ruth, “an intelligent looking girl with a face that, although perhaps not perfect in form, was possessed of an expression that was alluring” has quickly been promoted through the ranks and is now the chief supply clerk for the hospital.
Ruth has made many friends among the French villagers, from the boy-crazy peasant girl Henriette, to the imposing Countess Marchand. Because wartime makes people democratic, Ruth and Henriette are on their way to take tea with the Countess as the book opens.
While most series books find a way to catch readers up on the incidents of past volumes, either through the third-person narration or characters’ dialogue, in this case the author brings the story to a full stop as Ruth and Henriette wait for the doorbell at the chateau to be answered:
…All of this is told in the volume of this series immediately preceding our present story, entitled: “Ruth Fielding in the Red Cross; or, Doing Her Best for Uncle Sam.” This was the thirteenth volume of the Ruth Fielding Series.
Of the twelve books that have gone before, only a brief mention can be made while Ruth and the young French girl are waiting for an answer to the bell.
Over the next three pages, the writer individually summarizes the plots of the previous 13 books, before the Countess Marchand’s gardener finally appears to answer the door, returning the reader to the present story.
Ruth is introduced to the Major Henri Marchand, the Countess’s son, whom Ruth takes an immediate dislike to, what with all of his hand-kissing and bowing, dismissing him as a mama’s boy and a “dolly soldier”. She has further suspicions when he takes his leave and Ruth notes
Major Marchand stood beside the road and bowed profoundly again to Ruth- that bow from the hips. It was German, that bow; it had proved that his military education had not been wholly gained in France.
Their mother might be the loveliest lady in the world, but there was something wrong with her sons.
Ruth has scarcely started her tea, when she receives word that a hospital closer to the front has been shelled (resulting in the death of their supply clerk), and she is the one that must escort new supplies to the hospital. As she leaves, Henriette warns her to keep a lookout for a werewolf that has been stalking the countryside!
Ruth is to take an ambulance, driven by fellow American Charlie Bragg, who says everything “slangily” (in general, the volume doesn’t skimp on the adverbs).
After braving the German shells (and accidentally driving the ambulance into a large hole), Ruth and Charlie arrive at a country inn run by a mercenary old Frenchwoman, serving Provencal cooking to either side without prejudice. Ruth and Charlie are joined by a number of American ambulance drivers, as well as a contingent of American Expeditionary Forces, and Ruth’s heart swells with patriotism as she looks on them:
She suspected that many of them were of that class known about their home neighborhoods as “that boy of Jones’,” or “that Jackson kid.” In other words, their overflow of animal spirits, or ambition, or whatever it was, had probably made them something of a trial to their neighbors, if not to their families.
Ruth is troubled when she asks for news of Tom Cameron (Helen’s brother and Ruth’s own nascent love-interest) and is met with hostility; he has disappeared and the whispered rumors are that he has gone over to the Germans!
Charlie tries to reassure her that Tom maybe didn’t mean to be a turn-coat, but if captured…
“I doubt if any of them would give information to the Heinies. But they do say when the Huns capture a man, if they want information, they don’t care what they do to him to get it. The old police third degree isn’t a patch on what these Boches do!”
After a time at the war front hospital (and a few werewolf-sightings), Ruth returns to Clair, more suspicious than ever after encountering the elder Marchand brother, Allaire, who is also acting suspiciously German in his carriage.
Ruth sends to Paris for M. Lafrane, the head of the French Secret Police, a close personal friend (of course!), but when he arrives all of her evidence seems to have evaporated. MYSTERIOUS!
M. Lafrane does bring Helen and Heavy along with him, and Ruth’s initial excitement at seeing her best chums quickly turns to annoyance over their frivolity: Helen sees the Army as a good way to meet boys, while Heavy regards wartime rationing as a convenient diet plan:
“Don’t you know yet that we are in this war, Helen?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” returned Helen, pouting. “If we were not at war with Germany, do you think I would be away from Ardmore College at this time of year?”
However, Helen and Heavy are on hand to take over Ruth’s duties when the Countess summons Ruth into employ for a dangerous mission, which also clears up a number of mysteries.
As Ruth had suspected, the “werewolf” that has been spotted around town is actually the Countess’s prize greyhound, Bubu; the Countess reveals that Bubu has been trained to carry messages from behind the German lines inside his false tooth. The latest message is concerning the rescue of Tom Cameron, who of course has been working as a double agent with the Marchand brothers all along. Now only Ruth can rescue him!
The rescue is pretty spectacular, as Ruth and Henri Marchand must disguise themselves as German officers and sneak under the barbed wire and into no-man’s land. Once they arrive across the border in Merz, Ruth must assume the identity of Captain von Brenner’s (really: Tom’s) sister, who has the reputation of being a bitch on wheels. Ruth relishes playing the part, and townspeople and German officers alike are so shocked by the woman’s insolence that she is basically able to walk right back across the lines with her “brother”.
Helen and Heavy are delighted to be reunited with Ruth and Tom, although the ever-romantic chums are disappointed to learn the reason for her absence was not an elopement:
“Where have you been?” cried Helen. And Heavy chimed in with:
“Two whole nights and a day! It is disgraceful! Oh, Ruthie, are you really wedded?”
“I am wedded to my work,” replied Ruth quietly.
Sign It Was Written in 1918 Department: There is more than a little xenophobia directed at the immigrant population in the ol’ U S of A:
“I guess,” Ruth said gently, “that we may have been too kind to certain classes of immigrants to the United States. Unused to liberty they spell it l-i-c-e-n-s-e.”
Not to mention intellectuals:
“There are people other than ignorant foreigners who must be watched in these awful times,” the matron said bitterly. “There are teachers in our colleges who sneer at patriotism just as they sneer at religion. I am told that the very man they suspect in this dreadful thing, the American who sold the map of this sector to the Germans, came from one of our foremost colleges, and is American bred and born.”