Sisters in Arms – Kaia Alderson introduces a subset of a distinct group of WWII women deployed overseas during the war. Welcome to the WACs of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
I’ve recently discovered a number of books about the contributions made by women during World War II. When I reviewed The Flight Girls about the WASPs and Radar Girls about the WARDs, I assumed there were no other distinct groups of women directly involved in the American military. Wrong! Kaia Alderson’s novel, Sisters in Arms, introduced me to a special subset of women I had never imagined, members of the Women’s Army Corps, the WACs of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The “Six Triple Eight” as they were called was the only battalion of Black females deployed overseas during the war.
Alderson imagines two fictional Six Triple Eight members, both from New York City, who engage in most of the action the battalion actually experienced. She weaves real women in, too, like Major Charity Adams who commanded the group. Most of Alderson’s narrative, however, centers on Grace Steele and Eliza Jones. The two met the day they enlisted, their personalities clashed like oil and water, and they were thrown together time and again as the women (pejoratively called “girls” by white soldiers of either higher or lower rank) proceeded through boot camp, stateside assignments, then on to overseas duties in England and France. Those duties? To sort and distribute the enormous backlog of mail sent to American soldiers from their families and friends. Airplane hangars full of undelivered mail languished on an airbase just outside of Birmingham, many with illegible or faulty addresses and many containing disintegrating food as well as loving letters. Because the Armed Services needed all available able-bodied men to fight, three years’ worth of mail had not been distributed. It was up to the Six Triple Eight, led by Major Adams and Captains Steele and Jones to right the wrong,
Grace’s father was a Pullman porter and her mother was a seamstress. Her mother was particularly overbearing, designing a life for Grace that felt like a straitjacket. To make matters worse, Sisters in Arms opens when the family receives notice that her beloved brother has been killed in the Philippines. Heartbroken, Grace decides to enlist herself. Eliza, by contrast, came from wealth. Her family owned the only Black newspaper in New York. She was widely traveled, had been to Paris with her mother in the early 1930s, and had elegant taste in clothes. Like Grace, Eliza had a domineering parent, her father. As a newspaper editor, he was used to giving orders to his reporters, and continued the practice at home by ordering his wife and daughter around while stifling their dreams. One day, when he was particularly imperious, Eliza enlisted. She stood in line alongside Grace, and their difficulties began.
Each in her own way had led a rather sheltered life, so boot camp in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, was a real eye opener. The drills were excruciating. Eliza, who had never exercised much and who took taxis rather than walk anywhere in New York City, especially hated the daily runs. Grace, reserved and uneasy around other people, found the group-living situation almost too much to bear. Mid-western racism was rampant, unlike anything either young woman had suffered before. It was interesting, in fact, to compare the Six Triple Eight’s treatment in Iowa, and later in the South, with their treatment in England and then in France. Alderson presents the racism surely but subtly, and always in a believable (and demeaning) fashion.
There is a lot to like about Sisters in Arms. I appreciate historical novels that replicate what really happened in imaginative ways, especially those that feature multi-faceted characters in realistic situations. Grace and Eliza are drawn in depth, with traits that resonate, that send sparks flying, that move the action from one scene to another. Kaia Alderson confesses she is fascinated by “hidden figures” in African American society, so I expect we’ll find her studied research in future novels as well. I definitely look forward to more of her work. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Kaia Alderson: Calling Her Bluff (ebook).