CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 26. . . .March 13, 2015
Gisela Tobien Sherman.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2015.
348 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-927583-64-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927583-69-2 (epub).
Ontario Farm Service Force-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
..."I love my position as the mayor's clerk." She paused. "Don't take this wrong... I love Rob with all my heart. But... I don't want to give all that up when we marry."
Jean was startled. Her future sister-in-law had voiced what Jean had been thinking, too. She nodded.
"I manage our farm as well as a man. My cousin works in a factory in Hamilton. Clara Linton has run her household, and the drug store, without her husband for three years now, and manages it better than he did. What will happen to us when the men come home? Do we all go back to the way it was?"
"The war has changed our world, Jean."
"We've changed even more. I hope the world can keep up with us."
During both world wars, women played active roles in fields formerly closed to them. Some joined the armed forces, others worked in factories, and others became more actively involved in food production. Britain organized farm work for women ("Land Girls") through the National Service Women's Land Army. In Canada, "Farmerette" camps were operated by the Federal Department of Agriculture and the Ontario Farm Service Force. Food, housing and a small wage were provided to young woman who spent the summers planting and harvesting field crops and tending livestock. Temporary living accommodation was set up in high school gymnasiums or other available areas. Each camp had a "camp mother" and a cook. Each morning, area farmers would arrive to pick up the girls to take them to their farms to work. Many of the girls were in their final years of high school, and some had never previously lived away from home.
As the compiler/editor of a book of women's memories of World War II, a fan of war novels like Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, and of the "Land Girls" episode in the TV series, Foyle's War, I plunged eagerly into Gisela Tobien Sherman's novel, The Farmerettes. The author deserves praise for identifying a less-explored part of Canada's World War II history and recognizing its potential for a novel. In her Acknowledgements, Sherman thanks eight former "farmerettes" (including novelist Budge Wilson) for sharing their experiences with her.
Sherman presents her novel through six co-protagonists, fictional young women serving as farm help in Southwestern Ontario in the summer of 1943. They are: Helene, Peggy, Isabel, Binxie, Jean and - surprisingly - "X". (More on "X" later.) Each has her own reason for choosing farm work.
Helene wants to earn money to go to Grade 13, though she fears she may have to drop out to help her factory worker mother support her younger brothers. Helene's friend, musically-talented Peggy, wants to get away from a family secret (German relatives) that has made life uncomfortable for her family ever since the start of the war. Isabel, newly engaged to her highschool sweetheart, now overseas, wants to do something grown-up to make her fiancé proud of her. Jean, the daughter of the farm family where the girls are billeted, worries about her prisoner-of-war brother. She is friendly with the boy next door whom she seems destined to marry someday. Binxie has graduated from a private girls' school and, against her wealthy parents' wishes, wants to do something active for the war effort. She admires her elder sister, a pilot based in Britain, who ferries aircraft. During the summer, Binxie has a romance with the youth who seemed to be Jean's "intended."
Finally, there is "X", who hopes that "hard physical work on a farm in the wholesome countryside...would help her make a clean start... would cure her" of her longings for same-sex love.
Sherman chooses not to let each girl speak in a unique voice in alternating chapters. In fact, instead of creating chapters, she has five sections: "Soldiers and Seedlings"; "Thunder and Starlight"; "Strawberries and Sunburns"; "Heartaches and Waterfalls"; "Farewells and Futures". Within these sections, she uses dates in the summer of 1943 as headers; for example, Tuesday, June 8, 1943. Boldface type then indicates the name of the character who is in focus; in this case, Peggy, Binxie, Isabel, then Binxie again.
The diary form is a time-honoured way of presenting a novel, but normally it is used with one central character, writing in the first person, sharing her thoughts, impressions and feelings. In this novel, Sherman uses the third person omniscient author. The more intimate first person allows the reader to identify more closely with the character. Also, if Sherman had confined herself to four main characters (as in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and in several popular TV drama series aimed at a female audience), she might have developed more fully-rounded protagonists. The story includes a large number of secondary characters.
Some of the plot events are predictable: the birth of a calf; a fall in manure; a drunken night of mishap; a romance with a dashing foreign pilot. Other events seem designed to send a message. Readers learn, for instance, that there are good and bad people on both sides in a war, and that, instead of relying on romantic love and the prospect of marriage, a woman should be independent.
One area of the plot involves a deus ex machina. A mystery involving old love letters is solved, revealing the true parentage of a secondary character and providing him with an inheritance. This fairy-tale event solves his financial problems and allows him to bring happiness to the farmerette he loves. This contrived subplot detracts from the main plot, suggesting that the farmerettes' experiences are not sufficiently compelling.
"X", the unnamed farmerette, has more of a personality and inner life than the other characters. She first appears at a dance where she is thinking that she likes the boy she is dancing with, but that his sister is the one who "made her heart race." "X" joins the farmerettes, hoping to "be like other girls, get rid of her shameful sickness", but promptly falls in love with the pretty Isabel. When Isabel faints in the heat: "From a nearby row stepped a tall girl with a yellow scarf tied around her hair. She bent down, swooped Isabel into her arms and carried her from the field."
Why is "X" not given a name? Is the author indicating that "X" feels "the love that dare not speak its name," to quote Oscar Wilde, and that, therefore, her name must not be given? Is Sherman showing readers that, in the 1940s, same sex-love was largely unacknowledged and not widely condoned, and that, consequently, those attracted to their own gender had to hide this part of their natures? Since we are living in the 21st century, when LGBTQ people are recognized as part of the social fabric, why not give "X" an everyday name to signal that she is a person, like the other characters who have names? Calling her "X" diminishes her and labels her as "other." (I am reviewing the book from an advanced reading copy. Perhaps when the novel is released she will have a name.)
"X" contemplates drowning herself, but decides against suicide after reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and learning that she is not alone in her same-sex longings. Binxie is the one who leaves the poetry book, which was on her private school reading list, on "X"'s pillow. Throughout the novel, upper class Binxie is the voice of reason and good counsel, the one who settles conflicts and keeps harmony in the group.
I closed The Farmerettes feeling that Sherman's subject matter was worthwhile but wishing she had handled it differently. Teen readers, however, may find the novel entertaining and informative just as it is.
Ruth Latta's The Memory of All That: Canadian Women Remember World War II is available from email@example.com. She is also the author of several novels (http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com).
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