Not So Quiet...: Stepdaughters of War (Women & Peace) - Helen Zenna Smith

""It is such fun out here, and of course I'm loving every minute of it"... tell them that all the ideals and beliefs you ever had have crashed about your gun-deafened ears... and they will reply on pale mauve deckle-edged paper calling you a silly hysterical little girl." These are the thoughts of Helen Smith, one of "England's Splendid Daughters", an ambulance driver at the French front. Working all hours of the day and night, witness to the terrible wreckage of war, her firsthand experience contrasts sharply with her altruistic expectations. And one of her most painful realizations is that those like her parents, who preen themselves on visions of glory, have no concept of the devastation she lives with and no wish for their illusions to be shaken.

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Originally published in 1930, Not So Quiet is one of those faux memoir style epistolary novels describing the experiences of World War 1 ambulance driver Helen Smith, aka "Smithy". Her story opens in 1915 as she serves in France with a group of other female ambulance drivers. This group includes ringleader Toshington ("Tosh"), a bold, tomboyish redhead; "The BF" or Bettina Fisher, boy-crazy and all about the luxe life; Etta Potter, aka "Etta Potato" who is the team's resident sunshiney optimist, hardly ever bothered by anything except lost hairpins; Skinner or "Skinny", who seems to have a chronic nervousness as well as an overall unhealthy look to her, her skin often appears a tad jaundiced and she seems to be battling something that today might be identified as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), so the other ladies sometimes joke that if she's not at her ambulance she's probably in the nearest latrine. Then there's "The Bug", as they call her. Helen describes her as "tiny, wiry, tragic-eyed and dark, with a bitter mouth" -- bitter mouth as in appearance, not speech. Helen also points out that The Bug almost never speaks, giving her a mysterious quality that Helen thinks makes the woman the most interesting of their bunch.

 

It is four weeks since we had a bath all over, nine days since we had a big wash -- we haven't had time. We dare not hot-bath in case we have to go out immediately afterwards in the snow. The last girl who did it is now in hospital with double pneumonia and not expected to live. 

 

 

All the women bond over their common dislike of their boss, The Commandant, another female ambulance driver whose job it is to oversee / manage the rest of the crew. Problem is, she has a bit of a superiority complex, leading the ladies to give her an expletive-decorated nickname. The nickname is earned though, through what feels like the Commandant's cruel insistence on keeping the women constantly over-worked with almost non-stop busy work in between ambulance runs, allowing nearly no time for sleep, and having their meals made up mostly of outdated or spoiled food. If someone gets sick or injured, the Commandant pays little attention to it unless it looks like it might require a hospitalization, claiming that illness or injury not requiring hospitalization is "mere female affectation" (remember, this is a female spouting this!)

 

The novel is essentially just a detailed day to day account of what women in this job might have experienced. Some passages are just of life around camp, while others talk about the politics and common opinions of the day that these women were up against, as well as Helen's observances of the horrors of war -- the physical and mental injuries military personnel endured while their families back home lauded them for "doing their part" for the war effort, making these men and women almost god-like without really understanding the traumas they were faced with on a daily basis. Though a novelization, I found Helen's thoughts to be important food for thought that still holds relevance when considering the sacrifices of service members of today's military. The novel itself is written in an easy to understand journaling voice and is based on the journals of an actual female ambulance driver.

 

Helen Z. Smith is actually the pen name for Australian writer Evadne Price. Price happened to meet ambulance driver Winifred Young who had journaled her experiences throughout World War 1. Smith was granted access to the journals, holing herself up for six weeks to read all of them and was inspired to write this novel as a result. Also influencing Price's words were the real life memories of her husband, who was held as a Japanese POW for 2 years, and the war classic All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Not So Quiet was written as a sort of female response to that novel). Price's novel was originally serialized in the British newspaper The People (originating in 1881, the paper is still in circulation but is now called The Sunday People) where she worked as a wartime journalist. After being published as a novel, France awarded Not So Quiet with the Prix Severigne award, touting it as "the novel most calculated to promote international peace." It ended up becoming the first of a quintet under the Helen Smith name. {I tried to look up the other titles but had no luck finding any copies of any of the others, but will list them below for anyone interested.}

 

This book didn't necessarily have me from page one... it was more like one of those novels where I found myself a good chunk of the way through before realizing how invested I had become. I found each member of the ambulance team unique and entertaining to get to know and all the different struggles each woman faced stirred my empathy in different ways. While at times it can be grim -- and even graphic, in parts -- I think this novel would especially appeal to modern day military and EMS workers. Helen's descriptions of having to clean out the back of the ambulances each day, especially! The resonating message throughout is that while war can sometimes be a necessary evil on the path to eventual peace, it's not something to be glorified. As the saying goes, "there are no real winners." Losses are felt on both sides of the equation. This novel brings that reality home. 

 

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Extras

 

The other titles in this book's series (if you're able to find copies):

 

#2 Women of the Aftermath (**heads up, if you get a copy of the Feminist Press edition(pictured above) of Not So Quiet, there's a spoiler for book 2 in the afterword notes)

#3 Shadow Women

#4 Luxury Ladies

#5 They Lived With Me

 

 

Notes on author Evadne Price:

 

There seems to be some discrepancy on Price's actual birth date. Her birth year is sometimes documented as 1896, other times 1888, but Price's second husband claimed that the year was actually 1901. In addition to her writings, Price also briefly worked as a stage actress and, later in life with the invention of television, a tv producer. She also had a side career as an astrologer for magazines such as SHE Magazine and Australian Vogue. Evadne Price passed away in 1985.