Buried stories, Jane Tolerton

The Land Girls: In a man’s world
Dianne Bardsley
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877133949

The Women’s War: New Zealand Women 1939-45
Deborah Montgomerie
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402448
Living in the 20th Century:

New Zealand History in Photographs 1900-1980
Bronwyn Dalley
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1877242128

The first page of the first chapter of The Land Girls has a photograph of Joyce Young and her poem “The Call of the Land”. The poem has lines like “The men within the land they call / For lassies strong and brave.” And the photo is one of those black-and-white, side-lit portraits in which World War 2’s servicewomen look so smart.

The author’s decision to put Joyce’s picture right up front has worked for this reader. I’m rivetted, studying the red lipstick, the curled hair, the snappy dress uniform with its turned-up brim. But where is Joyce’s story in this book, whose preface makes such a point of telling us the book is based on oral histories of women whose stories have not yet been told? It’s right at the back, on the last page of Appendix 1, in small print. I might never have found it, except that near the end of Chapter 1 is a bracketed note, telling me to look for another land girl’s story in her biography in the appendix.

While Chapter 1 gives us chapter and verse on all the books the land girls have been left out of, this is what Joyce’s brief biographical entry says:

Young, Joyce. B. 19.2.21. Worked in South Taranaki, in Crowley. 2 daughters. Joyce was a supervisor for the Siberian Fur Company in Wellington when she joined the WLC in 1941, and was told that she would be met at the Hawera Railway Station by her employer’s agent. Her introduction to land girl life was nothing other than deflating. Both men were drunk and Joyce had to travel some miles out of town to the 100-cow dairy farm, where she and the farmer were alone. The next day the farmer disappeared for another bout of drinking and Joyce was left to milk alone. Her next job included child-minding and housework as well as farm work. In desperation she rang the powers-that-were and moved to an efficient and happy situation, where she stayed for three years.

 

Then there are quotes from Joyce – all about difficulties with cows in the “efficient and happy situation”.

But hang on a minute. This begs so many questions. Why did she join the land girls? How impressive was it to be a supervisor at the Siberian Fur Company at the age of 20? Had she any experience of rural life? And hang on another minute: “[N]othing other than deflating”? I’m guessing here, but I’ll bet what Joyce felt that night at the farm wasn’t deflation – it was sheer panic. Had she ever been in the company of a drunk man? In fact. had she ever been alone overnight with any man other than her father? Did she have a clear idea of what the consequences might be? Did they warn you about that sort of thing before they sent you out to such assignments? Did she lock her door?

What I really want to know is had she already written her high-minded poem by then – and, if so, were its lines going round and round in her head as she wondered what the hell she’d got herself into? The answers to these questions woven into a narrative – either in Joyce’s words or the author’s – would have provided an excellent opening to the book, particularly since dismal first placings were fairly common, as we find out from the other potted biographies in the small-print appendix.

Chapter 2 explores opposing forces to land girls (“Rural conservatism”), and Chapter 3 (“Champions of the Cause”) includes extended profiles of politicians Mary Grigg and Mary Dreaver – neither of whom were land girls, but we learn more about them than about any who were.

We do hear from the women themselves from then on – but only in short snaps and often in a sort of Old Girls’ letter way, with names printed in bold, followed by a few paragraphs. There are five pages though on Grace Johnson – who features on the cover, shearing. Grace took over a bloke’s property during the War and, on her 21st birthday, blade-shore 115 sheep. The several pages devoted to extracts from her diary prove that she gives good anecdotes. There’s the day the man from the union turned up and interrupted shearing progress: his “waistline prevented him from having any practical acquaintance with sheep except when he met them as chops for breakfast.” And the time she was to go to a neighbour’s to cut chaff till the wife rang to cancel: “There’s a patriotic person for you. No land girls for her! She needn’t worry! I’ve seen her better half only once. He looks like a seed potato that has been kept too long.”

In her conclusion, the author tells us her primary aim has been to recognise the land girls’ contribution to the war effort and to show that the service was unsupported by the public service and agricultural organisations. She has done that. But the book’s cover emphasises the interviews with 220 women and carries quotations from them, and the media material that came with the book talks of “bringing personal stories vividly to life”. Bardsley had the stories – but she buried them. I suspect that this book will sell well – because we do judge a book by its cover – but also that readers will feel it has held out a promise and not fulfilled it.

2

Deborah Montgomerie’s The Women’s War, on the other hand, is a book that delivers. You sense the work put in on every page – all the searching, sorting, sifting, sewing together, summing up, and the succinct serving up. Montgomerie has control of her material. And because of that, although at first glance it’s a drier, more academic book than The Land Girls (fewer pics), it’s an easier read.

While Dianne Bardsley takes a “ra ra” approach to land girls – and leaves out consideration of subtleties – Montgomerie mines the ambiguities and complexities of the New Zealand woman’s position in wartime. She doesn’t fall for the simple story and use her material to prove it. She sees in her material a different story and explores and explains that.

Her main argument is that in spite of the dramatic wartime changes, the War did not mark a radical shift in gender roles – which is why after its end, old patterns were swiftly, and emphatically, restored. Despite the changes, the War was essentially a conservative period. It may have put some women in uniform – but it did so with great misgivings. As a result, women found themselves in various binds. Neva Clarke McKenna, going overseas as a secretary in administrative headquarters, knew that “the main concern [was] that the male office workers [would] resent the possibility of our replacing them” and found that as “an oasis in the desert to men, we girls walk[ed] a mental tightrope”.

When Wellington City Council employed women to repair tram tracks, the women were quite happy to do the job, but the government made them stop (and demobilised soldiers were used instead). “Qualified disapproval” is how Montgomerie describes the attitude to working mothers. The government wanted their labour, but couldn’t risk the hue and cry that ensued when it said so. And the prevailing attitude of husbands was shame if a wife worked – it implied he couldn’t provide for her properly.

This book is a myth-buster – and a thoroughly satisfying read. My only small concern is that I’ve heard or read many of the quotations before – mostly in Gaylene Preston’s War Stories and Judith Fyfe’s book of the film, both of which are drawn on heavily.

3

Living in the 20th Century is a book of photographs, with the emphasis on “living”. Drinking a cup of tea – as featured on a front cover seemingly crammed with New Zealanders doing as many different things as could be fitted on – is seen as just as important as, say, marching off to war. There are several women in World War 2 photographs, including that of a dungareed, headscarfed woman being helped by an American soldier to stuff cabbages into a sack, and another of two WAACs in their quarters in New Caledonia in 1944. Had Bronwyn Dalley seen the Grace Johnson pics used in The Land Girls, I’ll bet she’d have wanted them. However, since she was choosing from photographs in the collection of the National Archives (whose job it is to house documents from government departments), she never got the chance to choose Grace.

These are images we’ve never seen before. Their like will not be taken again. A government department employing full-time photographers? The Railways Department, which did this, is not even a department now. (Restructuring is one reason this book covers the period 1900-1980.)

I confess this book made me tired just looking at it. Not because the New Zealanders captured in its pages were wearing themselves out, but because of the million decisions Bronwyn Dalley had to make. Choosing the photographs, dividing them into themes and ordering them into chapters must have been a big job – but it must have been an enormous one to organise the information around the photographs and work from the specific to the general so that the meaning of each image was clear in itself and in context.

 

Jane Tolerton is a Wellington writer and journalist.

 

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology and War
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