EA unveils the cover and shares an excerpt from historical fiction Girls on the Line
by Aimie K. Runyan, arriving Nov. 6.
About the book:
From the celebrated author of Daughters of the Night Sky comes a stirring novel inspired by the courage, dedication, and love of the unsung heroines of the Great War.
December 1917. As World War I rages in Europe, twenty-four-year-old Ruby Wagner, the jewel in a prominent Philadelphia family, prepares for her upcoming wedding to a society scion. Like her life so far, it’s all been carefully arranged. But when her beloved older brother is killed in combat, Ruby follows her heart and answers the Army Signal Corps’ call for women operators to help overseas.
As one of the trailblazing “Hello Girls” deployed to war-torn France, 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. But balancing service to country becomes even more complicated by a burgeoning relationship with army medic Andrew Carrigan.
What begins as a friendship forged on the front lines soon blossoms into something more, forcing Ruby to choose between the conventions of a well-ordered life back home, and the risk of an unknown future.
EXCERPT (from chapter nine)
March 26, 1918
Chaumont sur Haute Marne, France
The town of Chaumont, under normal circumstances, would have been charming. The old part of town was a tight coil of stolid stone buildings with graceful red tile roofs that dated back centuries further than anything in Philadelphia. It was just 150 miles to the southeast of Paris and had been chosen by General Pershing to be the seat of the American Expeditionary Forces, or AEF, headquarters. The building, a mile to the north of the town center, was nearly bursting with staff who never seemed to sleep. Though the fighting was nearly 250 miles to the north, one would think the fighting was next door.
We’d been forced to leave most of our group behind in Paris, with tears and embraces as though we’d all been friends for years. Indeed, it felt as though we had. It seemed strange to think we’d likely never see many of the women we ever trained with again, but we always knew we’d be scattered to the offices where we were needed most. Only seven would be sent to headquarters with me, as the higher ups wanted to keep the signal corps group in the advance area small until the systems were all well in hand. Poor Gloria was left to console her own squad, which was bound for Tours and the small band who would stay in Paris. Even the most stalwart of the girls was afraid to some degree, but now that we’d all crossed the Rubicon, none of us wanted to be left behind to be “feather bed soldiers’ hundreds of miles from the front.” Margot was promoted to supervisor and would serve in my command. Mary, Hazel, Luce, and Vera were under my charge, and I could not have chosen a better squad in terms of their range of skills. Unfortunately, Sadie Porter was also assigned to Chaumont, which didn’t sit well with either of us.
We were housed in comfortable lodgings organized by the YWCA across town, which meant we would have a good six miles of walking over the course of a day. Upon our arrival, we met the head of our house, a Mrs. Stella Grant, who had the unenviable task of finding lodgings for all the Signal Corps girls coming into the region, organizing social events for us, and, along with myself, acting as chaperone.
Mrs. Grant was the sort of woman who looked cheerful, no matter what the circumstance. She was forty years old and had signed on with the YWCA once her husband Jim had been called up. “Better to come over and help the cause than to sit at home and stew,” she said. I sensed she was of the ilk that couldn’t bear to sit idle, expertly knitting away at some socks while we were becoming acquainted. Despite all the energy that seemed to leech out from every pore of her being, she was a soothing presence. After only a few hours in her company, I was convinced she was the perfect woman for such a big job.
I was to report with two of the girls to get a tour of the facilities and to begin transitioning our group in to relieve the men for other duties. Margot, as supervisor, was entitled to one of the spots with me, and I awarded the other to Mary who was looking a bit cagey. I could tell Sadie felt as though she should have had the spot, being the oldest, but was mollified that I’d chosen her friend and not one of the others. Mary and Sadie were older than the rest of us, and they had formed a sort of bond. But while Sadie was resentful of being led by younger women, Mary had a far kinder disposition. I expected it was borne of her years as a high school French teacher. If nothing else, the field would have taught her patience.
Major Weaver, who it seemed was my direct supervisor, sent a driver to spare us the walk on our first day, which was an unexpected kindness. Though subdued by the proximity of war, the town was still charming. The vibrancy of the red tiled roofs and the smooth cobbles of the streets were as inviting as any of the villages we’d passed on the way from Le Havre. Despite everything, I felt incredibly lucky to call such a place home, even for a short while.
The young sergeant who drove us in gestured to the headquarters with pride as we approached. The stone building was indeed impressive, but less so than the hive of activity it contained. Every man who walked in the corridor walked briskly, and with the unmistakable mask of purpose. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks and the sweat pool in my palms. Would we ever find our place as a cog in this massive machine? The sergeant deposited us with Major Weaver, a short, wiry man who looked as though he’d had one more cup of coffee than was good for him.
“Lavatory,” he barked, pointing with his right hand as we jogged to keep up with him. “Clerical offices.” Finally, when we reached the end of one impossibly long, dim hallway, he barked “Telephone services.” And left with the briefest of introductions to the officers on duty. Lieutenants Drake and Bradley, assigned to desk work after injuries sustained at the front, looked as harried as if they were juggling hot embers.
“I’ve never been happier to see a woman in my whole life, and that’s saying something,” Lieutenant Bradley said with a wide smile. The right side of his face was scarred badly, but one could tell he had once been incredibly handsome. Lieutenant Drake was missing his right leg, but he was in otherwise remarkable health and spirits.
“We’re glad to be here,” I said earnestly. “It doesn’t seem Major Weaver is all that happy to be here, though. I don’t think he said three words together on our tour.”
“Never mind him,” Lieutenant Drake said. “He’s been growling for a week about being sent a pack of girls to run the office. We’ve tried to tell him that you’ll do a better job of running the phones than we can, but he’s set on sulking.”
“Well,” I said, unable to find a suitable comment about Major Weaver’s reluctance. “It looks like you’ve got a good setup so far.”
“We’ve done what we can,” Lieutenant Bradley said, sitting up a bit straighter in response to the compliment. “But we’re not real operators like you. We both look forward to learning your tricks of the trade. We’ll continue on with the night shifts once you ladies are all settled in. It’s quiet enough we can manage without making ourselves look like fools.”
“I doubt you look like fools,” Mary said affectionately. “But it’ll be good to get to work.”
“Then let’s,” I said, taking my place next to Lieutenant Bradley and looking over the board. It was a simple one, outdated by perhaps ten years, but we’d heard it was better than what the French had been using. I took out my leather notebook and began making notes about possible strategies for organization. There were five switchboards, each with a tall metal chair that resembled a high-backed barstool. It was evident they were working to add in even more stations to make use of all of us.
As though our arrival had been announced, the boards started lighting up, and I took up the first line. “Number please?” I said, summoning my cheeriest tone from my days at Pennsylvania Bell.
I heard some faint breathing and muffled background noise, but no voice responded.
“Hello? Number please?” I repeated.
“My God, a real American girl?”
“Yes, and I’d be happy to connect you.”
“I’ve never heard a sweeter sound in all my days.”