Home Fires in France, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Katrina's review of this over on Pining for the West caught my eye the other day. I've been looking around for more of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's work, after falling in love with The Home-Maker and Understood Betsy last year. A book of stories about France in the Great War sounded very intriguing. From reading about Fisher, I knew that she and her husband spent three years doing relief work in France, so I expected that her stories, while fictional, would be based on her own experiences. Ever since reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth a few years ago (before I started blogging), I've wanted to learn more about the First World War. It was a bit of shock to realize from that book just how little I do know. I can't remember studying it in any great detail, even as a history major in college. Only a random assortment of names and dates comes to mind - August 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the invasion of Belgium, Ypres and the Somme. Thinking this might fill in some of the blanks, I requested a copy through interlibrary loan and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it arrived.
Home Fires in France was published in America in 1918, presumably while the war was still going on. According to the "Publisher's Note," Fisher wrote him that "What I write is about such very well-known conditions to us that it is hard to remember it may be fresh to you, but it is so far short of the actual conditions that it seems pretty pale, after all." Her stories certainly aren't subtle. They are clearly and strongly pro-French (one wouldn't know from them that the British are actually in the war).
There are eleven stories in this book, and they are an interesting mix. As the title suggests, they are not about the armies in the trenches but the home front. They focus on both French soldiers and their families, and on Americans in France, many working for relief organizations. Several of the stories are in the first person, with presumably Fisher herself narrating, others in the third person. Some are set in Paris, flooded with refugees and invalided soldiers, others in the country-side, while two are harrowing accounts of events in northern France under German occupation. Fisher shows that while America was officially a neutral power, France was full of Americans like herself, collecting supplies and money from the U.S., organizing ambulances for the wounded, rehabilitation for the maimed and blind, food and clothing for the refugees. Some of the Americans in her stories are there just to get their pictures in the paper, or to play at nursing handsome young men (as were some of the French involved in relief work as well). Others with a sincere desire to help are unprepared for the scope of the work and simply overwhelmed. Several of the stories feature demobilized soldiers, maimed and blind, who must be provided for. The narrator of one, "A Honeymoon . . . Vive l'Amérique," runs a Braille printing press producing books for veterans, which was one of Fisher's own projects.
The most affecting story, to me, was the one called "A Little Kansas Leaven," about a young woman named Ellen Boardman, twenty-seven, unmarried, an office manager, "plain, rather sallow, very serious." Reading about the invasion of Belgium startles her into an awareness of world events, outside of her small Kansas town. From the start, she cannot understand why America is standing by, unwilling to help France and Belgium (Britain apparently is on its own). She ask questions of the fellow residents of her boarding house, and of her co-workers, many of whom see her as something of a crank, yet they find themselves reading the war news with more attention. Eventually Ellen decides that she has to do something. She takes leave from her job, over her boss's objections, takes out her life savings, and sails to France, to do what she can. In Paris, she finds her way to a refugee bureau run by prominent Americans who desperately need her practical skills. She spends four months there, organizing their work and their office. In the evenings she goes to the Gare de l'Est, where soldiers returning to the front catch their trains. There she timidly passes out chocolate and writing paper to those she finds alone, without family seeing them off. When her savings run out, she sails back to America and her hometown, where she finds a hero's welcome. I have to admit, this story brought tears to my eyes, a rare occurrence in reading.
I enjoyed these stories, though they weren't always comfortable reading. However fictionalized, they opened up a new world to me, and they sparked my interest again in learning about the war itself. I had no idea, for example, just what parts of France were occupied in the Great War. Unlike Fisher and her readers in 1918, though, as I read I couldn't help thinking of the future, of what would happen in France just twenty years later. It was especially poignant, reading the constant mention of fathers, husbands, sons lost, to know that her own son would die in the next war, in the Pacific.