Book review of “Girls on the Line” a Novel by Aimie K. Runyan.
The women of the US Army’s Signal Corps were known as the “Hello Girls,” and their deployment to France at the end of 1917 was considered both controversial and expedient. When Ruby Wager’s brother is one of the first casualties of the war, she decides she must answer the call to help with the war effort. Ruby’s mother thinks she should stay at home, knit scarves and socks, and wait for the return of her fiancé, so that she can marry him and take her rightful place in Philadelphia’s genteel society. But that’s not enough for Ruby, who sees joining the Signal Corps as the most effective way to show her patriotism, while putting to use her natural and hard-earned talents. In this gripping historical fiction novel, Aimie Runyan brings to life the efforts and sacrifices these women made to help bring the “Great War” to a conclusion.
Once again I was drawn to reading a novel about relatively unsung female heroes of the past, and this one does not disappoint. Although I do prefer novels about real women, Runyan’s protagonist Ruby is a totally fictional character; however, according to the author’s notes, she is actually a conglomeration of a group of real-life women, as are all the other women depicted here. Of course, the advantage to this is that Runyan could allow her imagination to run wild, and cherry pick the best stories from among many different women. The end result is a group of women, with Ruby as the main focus, who feel real and alive and ultimately admirable, even when they’re less than perfect. As I’ve mentioned many times before, imperfections in protagonists and other characters make them far more sympathetic and human to readers than those who are portrayed as flawless ideals.
I should mention that I’m actually old enough to have seen a real plug-in switchboard in action, and my mother worked as a switchboard operator when she was a young woman. When I used to visit my father’s offices, my mother would explain what these women were doing, and how the whole thing worked. (I think she actually helped out a couple of times; it was fascinating to watch.) So I know what these switchboards are like, and I felt that Runyan did a stellar job of describing them, along with the types of pressures these women could face. It also occurred to me that if you’ve never seen one of these, you might think that working a switchboard isn’t all that complicated or heroic. Thankfully, this novel shows both the complexities of this work as well as the importance of getting messages through between the battle fields and headquarters, which is something that should not be underestimated. Putting realistic and empathetic faces and personalities to these women only emphasized this, and heightened my enjoyment of this narrative.
That said, there was one aspect of this book that didn’t sit completely right with me. You might notice that the Goodreads summary for this book talks about how “Ruby must find her place in the military strata, fight for authority and respect among the Allied soldiers, and forge a victory for the cause.” This was very true and Runyan has Ruby deftly navigating all this. However, it goes on to say, “But balancing service to country becomes even more complicated by a burgeoning relationship with army medic Andrew Carrigan.” This is the bit that I was less enthusiastic about; how Runyan handled the romantic parts of this story. For the most part, Ruby’s relationship with Andrew is filled with all the right amounts of tension and chemistry. However, once things start to go well for the couple, there is a section that was, for me, overly sentimental. It was as if all of reality disappeared, and suddenly everything was ‘hearts and flowers,’ which didn’t fit in with the urgency of the rest of the book. Thankfully, this is just a small portion of the narrative, and when reality comes crashing back in, the action comes along.
There’s so much I more I would like to say about the subject matter of Runyan’s novel, particularly about how Runyan saw these women as being instrumental in women’s suffrage, and more. This is covered nicely in Runyan’s author’s notes at the end of this book, and I encourage readers to not skip that part, since it puts an additional perspective on the novel as a whole, as well as on the characters that Runyan so beautifully portrays here. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. Runyan has given us a fascinating story, with believable characters and a narrative that will draw in the reader from the start. I can warmly recommend this book and I believe it deserves a healthy four out of five stars.
Lake Union Publishing released “Girls on the Line” by Aimie K. Runyan on November 6, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books & Audio Books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books (to promote libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.