Though Erin Hagar and I have never met, I know we would be fast friends over our shared love of history. When I learned about her new book, Doing Her Bit: A Story about the Woman’s Land Army of America, illustrated by Jen Hill, (Charlesbridge), I begged her to be a guest for Friend Friday. Lucky us! She agreed. And we don’t have to wait much longer to read this wonderful book — it comes out this coming Tuesday!
You could have filled a thimble with what I knew about farming and World War I when I first heard about these spunky women known as the Farmerettes. Years ago, I listened to author Elaine Weiss give an NPR interview about the Woman’s Land Army of America. Her book describes a Progressive-era effort that was patriotic and revolutionary: as male farmhands engaged in war efforts, women trained as farm laborers and then were paid men’s wages to provide seasonal labor.
A generation before “Rosie the Riveter,” thousands of women worked on farms all over the country. As Elaine talked, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about these women. And I knew kids would love this can-do story.
“Write what you know?” Not me, not this time.
I researched, of course. I devoured Elaine’s amazing book and anything else I could find about the Farmerettes. I learned about the food shortages of the time, the debate about the U.S. entering WWI, volunteer efforts on the home front, and the social justice organizations (like factions of the suffrage movement) that agreed to temporarily shift their focus to support the war effort.
And I read Helen Stevens’ 1917 account of her summer of service published in the New York Times. It was primarily a PR piece, designed to highlight the Farmerette’s accomplishments and drum up enthusiasm for the next year’s recruitment efforts. I read it, and filed it away.
When I think about that NYT piece, and when I look at Jen Hill’s gorgeous cover–with Helen standing tall and proud in the field, holding that American flag– I ask myself, “How can it be that Helen was not always the star of this story?”
But she wasn’t. In fact, no farmerette had a leading role in my early drafts. Instead, the story was filled with passages like this:
… The government folks made speeches. The farmers fretted. And the women, well, they did what they’d always done. They got together and figured out a way.
They recruited volunteers– women who were willing to uproot themselves from their colleges, their factory jobs, their families. Together, those women learned how to work the land, to do their bit to serve their country.
This voice and collective point of view made sense to me, since the farmerettes trained and worked as a unit. And it’s not terrible. Versions like this got the manuscript noticed. It even won a prize. I thought it was clever.
That should have been a clue right there.
What I didn’t realize until much later was this: By keeping the Farmerettes as a unit, the only character with any agency was the farmer. He was the one with the decision to make–to hire these women or not– and the consequences to face. That’s not a bad story, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
When I finally realized that I needed a Farmerette in the lead role, I rediscovered Helen’s NYT piece and saw it with completely new eyes. The Ford Model-T that always broke down, her fear of snakes, the smelly turnip plants–these are her details. Because it’s now her story, they fit right in. As an added bonus, I could now add the wonderful character of Ida Ogilvie, the stern camp director who was also their fiercest advocate.
Write what you know? Well, I didn’t know much about farming or World War I or the Woman’s Land Army or even how to properly frame this story. But I did know that the story mattered, that it deserved to be told, and that, with enough work, I might be able to do it justice.
And now I look at that cover and see Helen Stevens front and center, right where she belongs.
Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. Her manuscript There Was a War On (Charlesbridge Press, 2016) was awarded first prize in the picture book category in the Hunger Mountain Literary Journal’s youth writing competition. She teaches for the Center for Talented Youth program at Johns Hopkins University and has worked helping educators design curricula and refine their teaching strategies. Erin is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children. (For Julia Child press/events) She has not yet trussed a chicken, but makes a mean molasses cookie.