Sisters in Arms
Sisters in Arms follows the lives and loves of two fictional characters in the Six Triple Eight, the real all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during WWII. Telling the story of our heroines from when they first receive the letters inviting them to join the unit until war’s end, this tale reveals all the joys and sorrows of what it feels like to fight for a country that treats you like a second-class citizen.
Grace Steele learns her brother died in the war the day before she auditions at The Juilliard School. Not surprisingly, her heart isn’t in it, and she is kindly advised to return at a later time. Instead, she finds herself responding to a letter she had just received asking her to join the WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps).
Eliza Jones works for her daddy’s newspaper, the Harlem Voice, covering social events, but she dreams of writing about so much more. She wants to be a war correspondent and cover the real news of the day. Then she receives a phone call from living legend Mary McLeod Bethune urging her to head straight over to the WAAC. She tells Eliza that “They are only allowing forty Negro women” to be part of the first class of officers and she wants Eliza to be part of that group. Eliza races straight over to the office to sign up.
Volunteering for service isn’t the hard part for either woman, though. It is convincing their families that they deserve this chance to serve their country. Grace’s mother is furious she blew her chance at a Julliard scholarship and doesn’t care that through the army, Grace will earn enough benefits to be able to pay to attend. She wants Grace to stay home and take care of her.
Eliza’s dad feels this isn’t an appropriate ladylike activity for his daughter. Many people are convinced that the WAAC is just a way for the army to provide playthings for the soldiers, and can’t believe the women will actually be doing important work for the war effort and he doesn’t want that reputation attached to his “little girl”.
Both ladies defy parental expectations.
This is billed as a historical novel rather than women’s fiction and I would agree with that label. The story takes a deep dive into what happened to the real Six Triple Eight, covering not just their day-to-day tasks but the harrowing moments of crossing the sea while being bombed by Nazis, a truly horrific run in with a violent racist which results in one of our gals being brutally beaten, a confrontation with other racists who want them removed from train cars when they travel, and the (attempted) refusals of Southern white enlisted men to travel with any Black officer who outranks them. Their adventures – and misadventures – are legion. We also hear of the more mundane difficulties – being forced to take cold showers (when they even get a shower), jeep accidents, uncomfortable beds, the incessant reviews made of their unit to ensure they are up to standard – the ladies face obstacles caused not just by the war but also by the negative attitude many in their own country feel towards them. I loved that the narrative captures not just the endless scrutiny the unit faced for being both Black and female but how they were often treated poorly by the very people they were fighting for and with.
The emotional aspect of both the racism and family issues adds a nice element of psychological tension to the novel. There are also issues between our two heroines. Grace and Eliza meet at the recruitment office, and it wasn’t love at first sight. Grace resents Eliza’s wealth, connections and her privileged way of life; Eliza finds Grace cold and bitchy. The incident that leads to one of them being brutally beaten is caused by the other failing to pass on crucial travel information and of course this causes some resentment. The two take time to make peace with each other, but they eventually develop a warm if somewhat prickly friendship.
Troubles on the home front don’t make service life any easier. Eliza’s mother is completely supportive of her work but her father alternates between giving her the silent treatment and berating her over it. Grace has an awful relationship with her mother and has to figure out what she wants to do about that. A lot of it revolves around her mother’s dreams for her being different from her own and Grace needing to decide if she has the backbone to pursue her own path. Being poor, female and Black also make her doubt her ability to stand on her own.
Naturally, both of our protagonists grow and learn throughout this ordeal. Grace slowly comes to acknowledge that while not everyone will judge her strictly on her own merits, most people actually do place more stock on what she accomplishes than they do on where she comes from. That resolution helps her to see her family situation in a new light and to value the women around her who may come from a different class but have the same devotion to hard work and success that she does. Eliza faces a lot of the same challenges Grace does. She’s aware that all her wealth is actually her parents’ money, and that she has access to it only at her father’s discretion. If he decides he no longer wants to support her, she will have a hard row to hoe in the future. She also realizes that while she loves her family, she refuses to go home with her tail between her legs, allowing her time in the WAAC to be the only adventure she ever has. She has to decide just how far she is willing to go and how much of a break she is willing to make from her folks to pursue her dreams.
There is a little bit of romance, although both relationships are still at the starting point by book’s end. Grace meets Jonathan, a lawyer and music agent, at the start of the story and encounters him throughout the novel since he is also working with the army. While he makes it very clear he is interested in a relationship, Grace refuses to break the military’s fraternization rules and mostly manages to keep him at arm’s length. But it grows harder and harder to do so as time goes on.
Eliza meets Noah, a doctor, at her final posting in Paris. He’s from Alabama, she’s from New York and she doesn’t see how they can have any kind of future. But his gentle persistence has her hoping that this romance might just be able to outlast the war.
Sisters in Arms is an important book with a lot of great history that I think should be on the shelf of every historical fiction fan. While the narrative does have a few flaws – it’s a debut novel, and the writing could be a bit clunky at times, the pacing was a little slow, and it’s a coming-of-age tale, so the story sometimes reads a bit like young adult fiction – it’s a good story that offers valuable insights into the past.