This week’s post looks at pre-WWII American Camp Fire series books for girls, books that could have represented competition for Elsie J. Oxenham, had her books been published in the U.S. Why are we doing this? Partly because it is fun, and partly because by looking at how other authors treated Camp Fire we can gain some insights into Elsie’s approach. The differences are night and day—it’s not just that Oxenham was, generally speaking, a better writer than these series writers (although, of those that I have read, Margaret Vandercook’s works are quite good and very readable), but also that she was a different writer—Camp Fire represented something different to her than it did to many of the series writers. While we don’t know whether other authors were personally familiar with Camp Fire—as we’ll see below, some of them seem to have just cribbed from the Handbook—we know that EJO was Guardian of Camp Watéwin (The Camp of Those Who Conquer) from 1916 to 1922, where she took the name of Wenonah, the Eldest Daughter.
(Above: the image used on this series by Vandercook. When my sisters and I canoed we called the girl in the middle the Beautiful Lady Passenger (still a family term), but we faced forward. It makes more sense to face backward as the BLP’s weight would be more in the center of the canoe. And, yes, that is a swastika on the prow—this was and still is a symbol of prosperity and peace in some cultures, despite its modern connection to Nazism.)
By the way, none of the American titles I have read yet address folk dancing. As I noted in earlier posts, while dancing was an activity for which a girl could earn Honors, it did not make its way into the series books.
I am not an expert on the history of children’s books in America, but I see two trends at work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first, I think, was an increased feeling that girls and boys would prefer to read—or, perhaps, ought to read—different things. Whereas in the 18th century both boys and girls read the same primers and moral tales or retellings of Aesop’s fables or Shakespeare, as the 19th century wore on the kinds of popular books for children diverged. Horatio Alger turned out numerous books about poor boys who Make Good. “Dime” novels for boys featured improbable action adventures out West or in other exotic locales. Girls turned to Little Women (1868-9) and other books by Louisa May Alcott. Heidi by Swiss writer Johanna Spyri, appeared in 1881 in numerous translations, British author France Hodgson Burnett (who lived in America for some period of time) produced Little Lord Fauntleroy (published in 1885–1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden (1911). American Kate Douglas Wiggin brought us Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1903. Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and followed Anne’s story for many more volumes; American Eleanor H. Porter produced Pollyanna in 1913, with more volumes following. While fun, interesting, or stirring events happen in these books, these are not adventure novels.
A second trend was that of a deliberately-conceived series book, as opposed to sequels produced to satisfy popular demand, based on the continuing adventures of a popular character or family. Margaret Sidney published The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew in 1881 and followed up with many others through 1916. Under the pen name of Laura Lee Hope, the Stratemeyer publishing syndicate produced 72 books about the Bobbsey Twins between 1904 and 1979. Edward Stratemeyer launched the Hardy Boys on their sleuthing adventures in 1927 and Nancy Drew and her pals in 1930. While he was not alone in doing this, a feature of the Stratemeyer syndicate was that the individual volumes were written to spec by a stable of ghost writers.
—And perhaps you will ask if I have read all these books? The answer is yes. And repeatedly. I read A Little Princess in about two days when I was nine. I enjoyed the Bobbsey Twins (twelve-year-old Bert and Nan and six-year-old Freddie and Flossie) and the Little Peppers. I devoured Heidi, Pollyanna, Rebecca, and Anne, even if I didn’t always understand what was going on. I didn’t understand the English cultural references of some of these volumes, found Rebecca’s relationship with her older mentor Alan Ladd a little perplexing and maybe even creepy, and even gagged a bit at Phronsie Pepper and Pollyanna as they were too saccharine even for my sugar-oriented reading tastes. I loved Nancy Drew and received just enough weekly allowance to be able to save up and buy a new volume ($1.25) every few weeks. I loved detective nurse Cherry Ames, and still enjoy following the nursing career of Sue Barton. I had random volumes of Vicki Barr, Flight Attendant, and other books of that ilk. My pre-teen and teen self was clearly preparing to blog decades later about a girls’ story series writer! (Many of the titles I mentioned are available for free at Gutenberg Press. Check them out!)
But I never read any books about Camp Fire.—
Elsie J. Oxenham’s first book that deals with the movement was, I think, A School Camp Fire (1917). In it, and in other of her works that include Camp Fire, she tended to focus on the spiritual, moral, and leadership attributes of Camp Fire. She tells us a lot about the pretty ceremonies, the symbolic names that the girls choose for themselves, the gowns and headbands that they make, but almost nothing about any sort of out-door “stunts,” as they were called. We don’t see her characters learning to swim, canoe, fish, or set up tents. Sometimes they will go for a picnic and a hike, but this is not their principal focus. Maidlin has learned enough first aid from Camp Fire to know to keep someone who has a suspected head injury flat, but that’s about it with regard to practical knowledge. We don’t even see how much or what kind of work went into earning any of the honors. In The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Her Books, Monica Godfrey suggests that perhaps Elsie didn’t herself know how to do these stunts—many of which she may have been interested in but couldn’t pursue due to her poor eyesight. But I think that in any case these were of secondary interest to her compared to the spiritual aspect of the movement.
By contrast, most of the American Camp Fire series are relatively silent on the symbolism and the rituals and somewhat more discursive on the healthy out-of-doors activities. However, such stresses were very dependent on individual authors, some of whom, especially in the Twenties and Thirties, move so far afield from the principles of Camp Fire as to be almost unrelated.
For example, in Julianne Devries’ The Camp Fire Girls as Federal Investigators, published in 1935 by the World Syndicate Publishing Company of Chicago, the story opens with one girl buying a long-coveted hat whose colors immediately run in the rain—someone is smuggling inferior, counterfeit goods into the country! Good God! The Justice Department calls for the aid of plucky Camp Wa-Wan-Da Guardian Mrs. Evans and her five (wrong number! six is the minimum required) girls to assist in the investigation, which takes them to New York City, then to a deserted house with secret passages, an ocean liner that sinks, with the lifeboat that the Captain and the girls are in attracting the attention by means of signal flares of a round-the-world monoplane flier who then hauls the boat behind him to a beautiful island in the South Seas where our heroines teach the simple native girls the songs and principles of Camp Fire, learning much about native plants and crafts themselves, then on to victory and success. Did you keep up? No?
These actions gallop by pretty damn fast and don’t always make sense! Characters say something in one breath and contradict it in another. Many things happen and the girls are active in some of them—they explore the secret passages, for example—but in my reading they are not as active agents as Nancy Drew is, at least as she lives in my memory. (Even for you, Dear Reader, I have not gone back to re-read Nancy Drew. Life is too short.) Nancy learns how to play the bagpipes in one afternoon so that she can impersonate the Piper in the Mist, Nancy learns how to tap dance so that when she is bound and gagged and stuffed into some deserted room she can still tap out Morse code with her heels on the door to summon rescue, Nancy drives her own roadster, Nancy—well, she can do and learn anything! Is Nancy Drew an innately more successful heroine, or was the Stratemeyer publishing syndicate a shrewder company? I don’t know.
Other Devries titles in this series include The Camp Fire Girls… As Detectives, …Flying Around the Globe, …at the White House, …on Caliban Island, …at Holly House. All of the titles but Federal Investigators and At the White House were published in 1933, leading one to believe that perhaps more than one hand was at work behind the name of Devries. As you can tell from the titles, these stories are more akin to boys’ adventure books. Since Nancy had appeared in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock, it appears to me that the exciting and improbable adventures of the Devries titles were meant to be her direct competitors. Oxenham’s quieter and romantic stories would not have stood a chance in this market.
As I wrote in earlier posts, the Camp Fire movement was an immediate popular success, and word about it soon spread through the mechanism of these popular series books for young readers. The device of the unique Camp Fire circle allowed each author to write about a different set of characters in different settings, unlike, for example, the Nancy Drew series, whose authors were required to maintain the same characters throughout. These books range in quality from pretty awful to good enough that I have been disappointed not to be able to read the entire saga. My preferred series is by Margaret Vandercook.
Her stories—and you can read many of them here—begin in 1913 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and carries the girls through “the snows,” the outside world, across the sea, their careers, “in after years,” “in the desert,” “at the end of the trail,” “behind the lines,” “on the field of honor,” and many more. Like Elsie Oxenham, Margaret Vandercook seems to have understood the principles behind Camp Fire; in her early volumes, at least, she repeats some of founder Luther Halsey Gulick’s arguments and puts them in her characters’ mouths: “… the Camp Fire ideals must help every woman in whatever work she undertook later in life” says a character in The Camp Fire Girls Amid the Snows, the second in this series, also published in 1913.
On the first page of the first chapter of Vandercook’s The Camp Fire Girls at Sunrise Hill (1913), rich, pampered Betty Ashton says: “‘Oh, dear, I do wish some one would invent something new for girls!….It seems to me that all girls do nowadays is to imitate boys. We play their games, read their old books and even do their work, when all the time girls are really wanting girl things.”
But another character echoes the home-making emphasis of Camp Fire by saying: “… even in these days of the advanced female it is still something to be proud of, to have real womanly tastes. Because some women go out into the world is no reason why they should lose their womanly instincts. What we are all working for, both men and women, is really just the making of a home, a big or a little one.” After Betty learns about Camp Fire she then goes to say:
“‘…you know how often we have talked lately of being dissatisfied, of feeling that here we are growing older and older every day and yet not learning half the things we ought to learn nor having half the fun we ought to have. Of course we read novels all the time, because it is the only way for nice girls to learn about romance or adventure, but we would like really to live the things we think about just the same as boys do. They don’t dream and scold about the things they want to do; they go ahead and do them, teaching one another by working things out together. They belong to things and don’t just have to have things belong to them to make them happy like girls do.’”
A Camp Fire was an ideal nexus for a series novel, as each group was its own cast of characters and could have its own problems. For example, Vandercook’s series opens with the introduction of rich, spoiled, lovely Betty who wants to find something to do and who rapidly meets “dull” stolid Sylvia, who reveals she wants to be a nurse; poor Esther from the orphan asylum; hot-tempered Polly; sweet Molly; fly-away Meg, who must care for her four-year old brother, big brother, and father since the death of her mother; sly Nan, suspected of theft and kicked out of school; lazy Eleanor, who has artistic pretensions and tries to get out of work; and the uptight, twenty-six-year-old old Guardian, a science teacher, Martha McMurtry, who hates her name and wishes to learn some freedom. This identification of a specific personality trait with each girl allows different installments in the series to focus on different girls’ crises; it also permits each to have a flaw that she must overcome.
Miss McMurtry discourages rich Betty from giving too much to poor Nan: “For it was not fair that Nan should not also learn a spirit of independence and the desire to earn her own way….Always we have believed that the American boy can make his own place in the world, given an education and a healthy body, then why not the American girl as well, now that she is to have almost the same opportunity and encouragement?” This sounds wonderfully feminist, but, alas, the opportunities that the author provides are focused almost entirely on home-making or, and this is an important topic too large to go into here, settlement work, which was working—almost always on a volunteer basis—in city slums providing educational and recreational opportunities to immigrants.
Each girl has lessons she must learn, whether they are practical ones like cooking or self-improvement ones, like overcoming a love of candy. The Camp Fire improves even the initially crotchety, stiff, and dislikeable Guardian: “Since outdoor life gives one whatever help is needed, she had grown far less thin with her months of fresh air, her figure was less angular, her expression less learned and her whole manner more like a girl’s than an old maid’s. Perhaps the gracious dignity of her new title [her new nickname is ‘Our Lady of the Hill’ or ‘Donna’] was also worth living up to.”
There were many competitors to any of the Camp Fire series: Meadow-Brook Girls, Ranch Girls, Red Cross Girls, Outdoor Girls, and so on. To write these posts I acquired a number of Camp Fire titles and was disappointed when one misleading Camp Fire title turned out to be about RADIO GIRLS instead—these girls assemble and disassemble a ham radio (to install it climbing a tree from which they nearly fall and perish) in a way that their boy chums don’t know how to do. I read it, but was annoyed by the take-in. This wasn’t the only take-in: one of the volumes I acquired with a certain title and author on the cover turned out to have an entirely different book and author on the inside. I am not sufficiently charitable to think that these were the publisher’s honest errors.
Many of these books are available on-line at Gutenberg Press. I found Vandercook’s Red Cross Girls titles of particular interest not just because of the stories but because they are some of the few books—especially books for girls—that address the War. Her American Red Cross volunteers travel behind the lines in France and even Russia. The horrors of war are not graphically described but are certainly there—the heroines deal with many difficult nursing and personal situations and find themselves changed forever by their experiences.
As you can tell by the inset images in this post, these series books featuring a given Camp Fire usually had the same image on the outer cover (mine don’t have dust jackets and may never have had). This would make it easier for the reader to know which series she was invested in, although my disappointment over some of the publishers’ deliberate or careless mis-labelling was surely shared by girls long ago.
Let’s look at one of these titles: Ethel Hollister’s First Summer as a Camp Fire Girl, by Irene Elliott Benson, published by M.A. Donahue of Chicago circa 1912. The book is weirdly geographically-specific in that the apparently wealthy, social-climbing Hollisters live in New York City, but the resourceful grandmother and her sister were born and raised in Akron, Ohio, and the niece Kate, Guardian of a Camp Fire, lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Kate visits to tell heroine Ethel and her mother about Camp Fire. Ethel’s mother objects to her joining and her objections sound quite realistic for the time. They include the wearing of a uniform or symbols such as a badge or ring or beads—“savors of conspicuousness, and it seems to me ridiculous,” says the mother—and that the girl would mix with girls from a lower social class. She says: “‘[W]hen she marries I trust it will be to a man who can afford to give her enough servants to do the work, a chauffeur to run her automobile, and a captain to sail her yacht. I hope she’ll have a competent cook to bake her breads and prepare the soups, roasts, salads, and make preserves. I should feel very badly if she had to wash and iron, wipe her floors, or do any menial work.’” While more directly uttered than in other stories, these two-fold objections of entitlement are clear and were probably shared by real mothers: rich girls don’t have to do housework and should not associate with the lower classes. By contrast, I don’t believe that I’ve seen any fictional poor mother object to Camp Fire because it will cause her daughter to have aspirations and expectations beyond her station. . . . this may reflect assumptions about the projected readership, which was probably not comprised of poor girls.
Kate ripostes her aunt’s opinions with a less-than-compelling argument, urging her to look at the Boy Scout movement: “‘It has become an institution, and in England when several Boy Scouts while camping out were drowned, the Government (think of it) sent out a gunboat—sent it up the Thames to bring their bodies back to London. Think of the national recognition. Why, it’s spreading so that every boy will become a Scout before long. And the good that they do no one knows.’” As a mother, this point doesn’t make me want to send my son out to join the Scouts! I am clearly not a worthy Mother of the Empire. And, needless to point out, the honor afforded to these dead Scouts—who would have gone on to be gallant soldiers and officers—is almost certainly not what would have been awarded to some drowned Camp Fire Girls! Possibly not even Girl Guides.
Kate then says that the Camp Fire movement is going to “‘revolutionize young women and make of them useful members of society—not frivolous butterflies—and it will be carried into the poorer classes and teach girls who have never had a chance, so that they may become good cooks and housekeepers and love beautiful things. And their costume is so pretty and sensible.’” The mission is thus two-fold: to teach home-making skills to both over-privileged rich girls who don’t know how to do anything and under-privileged poor girls, who may not know the best way of doing something. Both types of girls also need the out-of-doors experiences and the encounters with beauty and symbolism. While the mechanism—the camping and cooking, the pretty costume, the beads and symbolism—is fun and appealing, the message is to make a girl a better mother. As Kate argues: “‘[I]t gives her the splendid health so necessary to every woman, and oh! if only you’d read about it. You won’t listen, but they learn how to cook, how to market, to wash and iron, and keep house, how to take care of babies, —and don’t you see if a girl marries a poor man she can be a help to him and not a hindrance? Then they have to be kind and courteous, to look for and find the beauties of nature until work becomes a pleasure and they’re happy, cheerful and trustworthy. They give their services to others and learn something new all the time.’”
The non-ritual attire is described later, when Ethel is at last allowed to join. It is a blue cloth skirt “with pockets”—this is clearly an unusual and desirable feature! Another feature is that the skirt “buttoned up and down the front and back”—this feature isn’t explained in this volume, but I imagine it is so that the two halves could be buttoned around each leg, forming loose trousers, although Ethel also orders blue serge bloomers to be worn when camping or hiking.
There is a long and interesting discussion of the ring and badges of the three ranks, the Camp Fire meeting and its rituals, and the Book in which the girls’ Indian name and honors are recorded. When the girls travel to their camping site on the banks of the Muskingum River in Ohio, Guardian Kate tells a long story of the Indian maiden O-hi-o and her lover Muskingum. (These are real rivers; you can MapQuest them. I live not far away from this confluence at the headwaters of the Ohio, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers flow together. They flow side by side for about a mile until they merge, and you can actually see this from above on a clear day: the waters of the Mon with its muddy bottom run brown, and those of the Allegheny, with its quartz bottom, run blue. Is this not interesting? I’m sure I could write an Indian Romance about this.) She recites, pretty much verbatim from the handbook, some of the skills a girl must learn (how to bandage an open wound or deal with frostbite, memorize a poem of twenty-five lines or more, learn to sail, ride horseback, skate, climb mountains, tie a square knot, etc.) Much is made of the delicious food they cook over the camp fire. There is a weak sub-plot about some missing jewelry, and Ethel discovers that a girl whom she does not like has been taking the items in order to obtain better care for her younger sister, whose back was injured in an automobile accident in which the driver was unexplainedly accompanied by the girls’ mother and both of them were under the influence of morphine. (!) I’m not making this stuff up. One assumes that the author was either a member of a Temperance league or was catering to that group, as there is also an inset story of a husband turned Bad due to drink. The story ends rather abruptly with a now independent-minded and democratized Ethel returning to her mother and refusing to make her debut in society. In a brief paragraph she converts her mother to better behavior—in subsequent volumes the mother will become quite involved with the Camp Fire and will teach the girls principles of fine tailoring. The volume then pads out its pages—very unsatisfactorily for this Reader!—with a “long short” of eighty pages titled Little Susy’s Six Birthdays! What a hum! What a take-in!
Just like the Camp Fire movement itself, these books are a confusing mixture of empowerment—Pockets in your skirt so you don’t have to carry a reticule! Girls doing things themselves! Cooking and sleeping out-of-doors!—side-by-side with learning the home-making skills and mind-set to make the heroine and the reader a better wife and mother.
(Left: many publishers included black & white line drawings as frontispieces and several of my copies have these drawings colored in by readers.)
And, while by its title this would appear to be the first in a series, the publisher offers in the end advertisements six more titles related to this Camp Fire, including The Campfire Girls’ Outing; or, Ethel Hollister’s Second Summer in Camp, and Campfire Girls in the Alleghany [sic] Mountains; or, a Christmas Success Against Odds, which includes kidnapping, Bad Men, a strike by the poor mine workers, Boy Scouts camping out in a cave, and other sensationalistic events. The same publisher offers much more exciting-sounding stories for boys, including a series written by the improbably named St. George Rathbone, who has “thirty-five years [sic] experience as a true sportsman, and lover of nature.” These titles promise to offer “a feast of useful knowledge. . . with just that class of stirring incidents so eagerly welcomed by all boys with red blood.” The titles include Canoemates in Canada; or, Three Boys Afloat on the Saskatchewan and The Young Fur-Takers; or, Traps and Trails in the Wilderness. What do you think you’ll learn when you read these?
One characteristic of series novels that the author—or probably more accurately, the publisher—increasingly incorporated was not only the end advertisements of other books in that series or others that they published, but inset teasers of adventures past or future. The phrases run something like this: “Nancy and her friends had just returned from EXOTIC LOCALE where they solved the baffling Riddle of the THING” incorporated in the first chapter to drive the reader back to already published volumes, or, towards the end, “Join Nancy and her chums in their next adventure as they travel to NEAT PLACE to seek answers to the question that had stumped brilliant detectives—The Secret of the OLD THING.” But the teasers are not intrinsic to the plot of the given volume you are holding in your hands. Nancy and her pals never change from one book to the next. We never wonder about her vague relationship with college quarterback Ned Nickerson because it is not important—we focus only on the next adventure.
By contrast, most of the pre-1930 Camp Fire series novels that I’ve read not only use this technique, they tie the reader in because the characters develop over time. Develop is a strong word perhaps, but what I mean is that not all the situations or problems are resolved in each book. A girl’s relationship with her family, especially her mother, might not be fully settled in one volume alone—will she prevail in her desire to work in a settlement house or will she become a popular debutante as her mother wishes? This is the dilemma Margaret Vandercook sets out but does not resolve in The Camp Fire Girls at the Blue Lagoon—to find out, you will have to purchase subsequent volumes. (Why are these characters standing on a beach wearing evening attire? It is because they have gone out for a midnight canoe ride after the dance and been carried by the tide to a deserted island where the girl’s Camp Fire training makes her a sturdy and uncomplaining companion.) There might be a group of jolly young men who hang out with the girls—which pair will end up together? A character—often a younger girl or a girl whom the central heroine does not particularly like or appreciate—is introduced and a conflict or dilemma is established, but we don’t know until the next volume where the tension is leading. This technique was employed not just by some of these early series writers but by more highly-regarded writers of multi-installment sagas such as Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Eleanor Porter (Pollyanna). What will happen to these girls as they grow up? Will Gilbert Blythe ever win Anne Shirley as even a young reader can deduce he is meant to do?
By contrast, Elsie J. Oxenham never employs the teaser route of specifically mentioning the past or next title in a series, even though most of her 90 books were in one series or another and/or loosely inter-connected. This may have been in part because she had multiple publishers, none of whom benefited by her mentioning a specific title that another had published. Regardless, EJO keeps us invested in a group of girls in that a character will casually refer to past events such as attending the Vacation dancing school, or will say that some conflict happened in a prior term at school, or they might in a very natural and realistic way recognize a voice over the telephone of someone they had known long ago. Maidlin and Rosamund in particular are given gentle, multi-volume story arcs until their problems are resolved, but you don’t have to be aware of that arc to enjoy each book. As a reader I find that I am hooked on EJO’s series not because of dramatic cliff-hangers (there aren’t any) but because of these gentle reminders that life is not tidy and that people and events are inter-connected.
Sandra Stoddart says
My goodness what memories this brings back. I hadn’t thought about The Bobbsey Twins for over 50 years plus. I enjoy your blog so much. thank you.