[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Walton on Wagner, 'Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien'
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Begin forwarded message:
> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: November 7, 2019 at 7:57:51 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Walton on Wagner, 'Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Nancy O'Brien Wagner, ed. Alice in France: The World War I Letters
> of Alice M. O'Brien. St. Paul Minnesota Historical Society Press,
> 2017. Illustrations. 216 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68134-026-5.
> Reviewed by Whitney Walton (Purdue University)
> Published on H-War (November, 2019)
> Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
> These letters from Alice O'Brien are an excellent source for
> understanding American women's involvement in World War I. They
> reveal the high demand for American women's service in France in
> several different capacities, including as drivers, canteen workers,
> and nurses. Patriotism, anti-German sentiment, and enthusiasm for
> being useful drove twenty-six-year-old O'Brien to respond to the call
> for volunteers. Readers learn about the challenges of overseas
> transport during war, the sorrow over so many young French and
> American men dead or maimed, and the expectation of victory that
> enabled everyone to continue.
> Editor Nancy O'Brien Wagner carefully reconstructs her grandaunt
> Alice O'Brien's family and social class background in St. Paul,
> Minnesota, prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. O'Brien was a
> well-educated young woman from a family of means involved in the
> lumber business. After completing her education at the Bennett
> Finishing School for Young Women in Millbrook, New York, in 1911, she
> traveled extensively in the United States and abroad; she was an avid
> car driver, mechanic, and outdoorswoman, and she worked for the
> suffrage movement. While O'Brien's motivations for volunteering for
> war work are not entirely clear, Wagner notes that many in O'Brien's
> peer group of East Coast-educated women and men supported the French
> even before the United States entered the war in April 1917.
> Thereafter, the American Red Cross and other relief organizations
> redoubled their efforts to assist American soldiers and their allies.
> Wagner reasonably speculates that O'Brien and three friends applied
> to work for the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW), rather than
> the American Red Cross, because of personal connections, less
> bureaucracy, and more opportunities, notably to be drivers and
> mechanics. After providing several testimonials to American loyalty,
> but undergoing no training, O'Brien and her friends set sail on the
> French Line ship _Rochambeau_ on March 30, 1918.
> The letters from the ship convey wartime apprehension about submarine
> attacks, blackout conditions on board, and sugar shortages, but the
> heart of the book describes the experience of the German offensive
> from the perspective of civilians in Paris and the rigors and
> pleasures of canteen work. After surviving an air raid in Paris
> unscathed, O'Brien wrote home: "We are living in thrilling times and
> I would not give up the last few days for all the money in the world"
> (p. 33). O'Brien and her friend Doris Kellogg did some driving in
> Paris, fetching and delivering supplies, and constructing a working
> automobile from parts, but they increasingly yearned to work in a
> canteen for the Red Cross because the AFFW could not obtain cars from
> the United States for the volunteers to drive and repair. Eventually,
> the AFFW released them from their commitment since it could not
> provide any work, and the young women joined the Red Cross and headed
> to a canteen near Chantilly.
> O'Brien thrived on the long hours and constant activity at the
> canteen. She described the food they prepared and distributed, the
> almost round-the-clock shifts to accommodate French soldiers leaving
> and returning to the front, and housing for the canteen workers.
> After a military engagement when wounded soldiers flooded nearby
> hospitals, the canteen workers pitched in to help in distributing
> water, food, tobacco, and kind words. They mourned the young men who
> did not survive.
> The letters raise several questions. Wagner suggests a connection
> between O'Brien's driving and suffrage activism before the war:
> "owning and driving a car were political statements" (p. 8). It would
> be interesting to learn more about the effect of the war on her
> politics. Does O'Brien fit into Lynn Dumenil's analysis of the
> connection between activism and war service in her book, _The Second
> Line of Defense: American Women and World War I_ (2017)? Wagner hints
> at such an effect when she writes about the founding of a women's
> club in 1920-21: "Alice and her contemporaries were charging into the
> public and political frontiers with the same determination they had
> brought to the front in France," somewhat of an exaggeration of their
> time near the front, and perhaps it is impossible to know more since
> the letters ended when O'Brien returned to the United States (p.
> 162). Another question is, in what specific ways was O'Brien's
> account similar to or different from those of other American women in
> World War I? O'Brien's unquestioned patriotism, support for the
> Allied cause, and vicious hatred of Germans contrast markedly with
> the modernist writings of American nurses Ellen Newbold La Motte
> (1873-1961) and Mary Borden (1886-1948), which Margaret R. Higonnet
> collected and edited in _Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of
> the Great War_ (2001). The two works complement one another and
> invite further research.
> Citation: Whitney Walton. Review of Wagner, Nancy O'Brien, ed.,
> _Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien_.
> H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54000
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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