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Behind the Book — Background


I once knew a real farmerette, and I happened upon the story of the Woman's Land Army in her farmhouse in the hills of Vermont. Her name was Alice Holway and she was almost 80 years old when I met her. She loved to tell stories of her service in the Land Army, she was very proud of having "done her bit" during the Great War. I duly jotted down her tales, but I could not find any information about this Land Army. There was nothing in the local library, no mention in the history texts, no trace. I thought about it over the years, would make a stab at finding something, then give up in frustration. (This was the era before the internet.)

Now I understand why I could not find any mention of this fascinating, but forgotten, episode in American history: until I wrote Fruits of Victory, there was no complete account of the Land Army in WWI, anywhere.

But once I began digging deep enough, I found that the Land Army story in WWI is there-- if you don't mind getting dusty. It is hidden in primary documents scattered around the country, tucked in local libraries and great university collections; it is in the files of government bureaucracies, under the domes of state archives buildings, and in the musty basements of tiny historical societies. It is there, in newspaper morgues, in women's club minutes, in college scrapbooks, garden club records, war work transcripts, suffrage publications, and in piles of handwritten letters. My research took me around the U.S. and across the sea to England.

Scores of librarians and archivists around the country have been pleasantly surprised, and truly excited, to find Woman's Land Army documents in their possession. I am truly grateful for their help and their enthusiasm. They enjoyed some surprises, too: The archivist of one great southern city was truly stunned when I showed him a photograph of the Woman's Land Army of Augusta, Georgia at work picking cotton in 1918. "I can hardly believe it," he said of this scene of socially prominent white women stooping in the cotton fields of Georgia. "That simply was not done." But it was done by the Land Army in Augusta in that wartime summer -- just one of many instances when farmerettes flaunted social conventions in the name of patriotism.

But the WWI farmerette had become a weird ghost--her image was still apparent, but with no identity or context: The most famous Woman's Land Army recruitment poster, painted by Herbert Paus in the classic WWI style, is again popular today and can be purchased from any number of art galleries or historical poster merchants online. It's a terrific poster, and probably graces many a modern wall, but I doubt many of the proud owners displaying it have any idea of what the poster means, what the Woman's Land Army was, or why those cute farmerettes in the picture are wearing uniforms and carrying bushel baskets and flags. Coffee mugs, T-shirts, even boxer shorts and (gasp) thongs bearing the image of the Paus poster farmerettes can be purchased online. It's a wonder.

In Fruits of Victory, I've tried to bring that farmerette, a sassy daughter of her turbulent times, back to life, piecing her together from fragments scattered around the nation, hidden in obscure places, buried in plain sight. I've attempted to place her back in the sweeping narrative of America at war, of a nation in transition, of women on the threshold of suffrage and modernity. I've tried to restore her voice--singing, reciting poetry, arguing, complaining, speechifying. And, of course, to recapture the excitement of her unusual call to service--"The Girl Behind the Plow Behind the Man with the Gun," the woman scything for Uncle Sam to win the war. The farmerette deserves to reclaim her place in history. I hope you enjoy reading about her.