A Time for Courage

Today is a special Election Day edition of Young Adult Historical Vault, in honour of my own right to vote! And for all other American women. Go vote. Exercise your rights that women worked so hard to get. And a twofer in Thematic Weeks, because Friday is Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day, and this book is also about the First World War. I’m knocking them out all over the place here.

A Time For Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington D.C., 1917, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

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Kat is a thirteen-year-old, fairly wealthy girl in Washington, whose whole family is politically active. Her mother and older sister and aunt are active in the suffrage efforts, but Kat just feels kind of blah. She’s not a good student (I do love a story about a poor student! They’re not the norm!), she hangs out with her best friend and cousin, Alma, and she likes to go to the drugstore for sodas and ice cream. I like Kat. We could hang out. Alma’s father, Kat’s uncle Bayard, is rabidly against women’s rights, and kind of a dick. Not kind of a dick, a major dick. My senses, honed by reading literally hundreds of these books, are telling me that Bayard is going to cause some trouble.

Kat’s mother is friendly with Alice Paul, the secretary of the Women’s Party, and consequently gets to meet some of the important movers and shakers there along with her mother and aunt and cousin. This infuriates her uncle to the point where he and Kat’s aunt are having pretty bad marital problems. Kat’s father, Dr. Bowen, is infinitely more supportive of his own wife’s efforts in the suffragette movement, even if he thinks she goes overboard. Especially with the picket line the Women’s Party starts directly outside the White House. Kat and Alma sew banners and bring soup and hot coffee to the women on the line, since it’s January, but other than that she’s not allowed to participate.

Poor Kat is a bit lonely. Her father is frequently off seeing patients, her mother’s on the picket line a lot of the time with her older sister, and her eldest sister Cassie is away at Radcliffe in college. She frets about the newspaper writing such awful things about the suffragettes, frets about America entering the war, and especially frets that her sister Nell wants to join the ambulance corps when they do. Kat feels left out—not old enough to really do anything, but old enough to suffer with the understanding of everything that’s happening. She and Alma bring more supplies to the picket line, and they bring Alma’s older sister Clary, who is mentally retarded—and then Clary gets sick, and Uncle Bayard blames the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement for it.

While Kat is eavesdropping on her parents one night (don’t judge, you did it too, everyone eavesdrops on their parents, it’s the only way to learn stuff), she overhears the word DIVORCE. I think this might be one of the only Dear America books where the threat of divorce actually plays a major role? I’d have to do a quick check, but I’m fairly confident in that. So Kat FREAKS OUT, thinking her parents are divorcing, and stresses about it until her family’s maid, Marietta, notices and tells her that it’s not her parents—it’s her Aunt Claire and Uncle Bayard who are thinking about it. When she talks about it with Alma, Alma’s biggest fear is that she’ll be sent to Ashmont, the plantation in Maryland where her father grew up.

The picket line continues on into March, and the women began to plan for a march for the president’s inauguration (that being Wilson’s second term). Kat goes with Alma, much to their mothers’ dismay, and thousands of women march on the White House—and they’re directed to leave their resolutions at the side gate where Mrs. Wilson’s shopping packages are left. This is true, by the way, and horrifying insulting.

Cassie comes home from Radcliffe, red hot to join the picket line and the ambulance corps and generally Do Stuff, but their parents absolutely forbid her to leave college. She goes to a party and a dinner, where the Attorney General happens to also be attending, who remarks to Cassie how lovely it is to see a young lady enjoying herself and not being a crazy suffragette. Cassie LOSES IT on him, tells him off in graphic detail, and tells him he should resign. And leaves. Cassie for president. Bayard finds out, freaks out, and “forbids” Alma and Kat to contact one another—and then the next day Alma is sent to Ashmont!!!!

Poor Kat. Alma is gone, Russia is falling, the US is just days from entering the war, and it really seems like no one has time for her anymore. Even she admits that it feels shallow to be worried about herself, but she’s thirteen! She can’t help it! Do you remember what a horror show it was to be thirteen without having terrible world events happen basically in your living room? It was a nightmare!

Anyway, it’s not just Alma who’s been sent away, it’s all the kids—Alma and Clary and their four younger brothers, and poor Aunt Claire is just absolutely beside herself because this guy has taken her kids away from her! He drugged her tea and then stuffed the kids in the car and had them sent away in the middle of the night! Bayard is a monster! Kat gets a letter from Alma, detailing how awful her grandmother is, but just about at this moment America is on the brink of entering the war and the Women’s Party is very divided, so they’re about to have even more troubles.

America officially enters the war on Kat’s birthday (happy birthday), and Kat is disappointed that her birthday is “squeezed in” between her father’s appointments and her mom’s picket line and her aunt’s appointment with the divorce lawyer. Kat even wonders if women’s rights are that important when men are suffering and dying in the war. Her sister Nell is planning something, her mother is busy, and poor Kat just feels terribly left out of everything.

So in response, Kat focuses on her school’s hockey team (field hockey, you Canadians, it’s May by this point) and makes friends with Harriet, a girl at her school of German descent who’s been having a hard time with some of the other bitches at the school. So they play hockey and get sodas at the drugstore, and by this point several girls on the team have mothers on the picket line as well. Kat’s father is busy training medics, and her mother is on the picket line, and Cassie is back at school, and Nell is off being mysteriously absent all the time.

“I hate this. I HATE HATE HATE IT. All right, I’ll say it right now. I may as well be a flower pot in this household. Nobody pays any attention to me. They all go about business they think is much more important, and maybe it is, but it is simply not fair. I am fourteen years old. I deserve more attention. Nell and Cassie got their fair share when they were fourteen. There was no darn war going on and no picket line. My very own birthday celebration had to be squeezed in between everyone else’s noble doings. I am too young to be a part of anything and too old to enjoy the benefits of being a cute, chubby little baby….”

Poor Kat. I really love this—lots of YA books, especially ones from the 80s and 90s that focus on particularly struggling times, focus on how brave the protagonists are, and how much they do for the effort. (Lots of DA books fall into this trap, too.) I love a book that is more realistic about exactly how involved a 14-year-old girl could be, and how she probably wasn’t going to be doing much of anything other than being miserable the whole time. It’s just great.

So Kat spills this to her dad, who tells her she doesn’t have to go to the last week of school, and goes with him instead to the hospital. And then all of a sudden, Nell just up and disappears! Harriet’s sister goes with her—they’re off to join the relief efforts in France, and ship out before anyone has a chance to say boo.

Aunt Claire goes to visit the children at Ashmont, and brings them to Kat’s house in the middle of the night—all of them except Alma, who HAS RUN AWAY! To be a nurse in England with the Red Cross! After lying about her age, she left, and her grandmother didn’t tell anyone for two days, and then her father tried to hunt her down himself, but too late. So Kat is excited for her, but lonelier than ever, even with her other cousins back home and the victory garden she starts to keep herself busy.

They begin arresting women off the picket line in June, and in July, Kat’s mother and aunt and Harriet’s mother are all arrested. They’re sent to a women’s prison in Virginia, along with the wives of several other wealthy and influential men, who raise a huge fuss. The president agrees to pardon them, but the women refuse to be pardoned. They claim they have done nothing wrong (true) and don’t need to be pardoned. They’re released anyway, on a sort of bail, and continue to picket. Kat gets letters from Alma and Nell, who are in Europe working away, and again feels like she can’t do anything.

In the middle of August, something very near to riots begin to break out on the picket line when malcontents, frustrated with the suffrage movement, start to hurl eggs at the women and even fire at them. Kat is forbidden to go anywhere near it, and then her mother comes home terribly bruised and injured –and then after she goes back, she’s arrested AGAIN. This woman, oh my God, incredible. Cassie goes to the trial and describes it as “disgusting,” and Kat’s father is now just as committed to the cause as her mother and doing everything he can to get the president’s ear.

Poor Kat—her mother is in prison, her sister and her best friend have left the country, and she’s still expected to start school as usual as if nothing is wrong. Cassie goes back to Radcliffe, Nell writes from Rouen, and Kat writes “I cannot believe how boring my life is in comparison.” I love this observation—that even in the midst of these massive upheavals and changes, Kat’s life is still all about school and home and she’s bored and frustrated! Poor girl. The prison where her mom is being kept is dreadful and they’re in horrible conditions, and powerful men are sitting up and taking notice (because, of course, these are wealthy and powerful women being kept in these conditions). There’s even a riot in the prison, but of course this changes nothing.

At the end of November, Kat manages to sneak into the jail to see her mother, just briefly, and she’s horrified at how thin and unhealthy her mother is looking. The women in the prison begin a hunger strike, trusting that the president will do something before allowing these powerful women to die, and he does—he orders Kat’s mother and the other women to be force-fed. Oh my god, it’s so awful. Kat’s father is filing complaints left and right and doing his best, but ultimately he feels like he can’t do anything.

On top of all this, Kat manages to win a prize in Latin, which she feels is beyond stupid given everything that’s happening. Her father has an emergency and can’t go to see her give her speech, but he turns up halfway through—with her mother in tow! The women were released after Wilson got too much pressure about the force-feeding, and Kat’s mother is finally able to come home.

In the epilogue, Cassie dies of the influenza epidemic the next month (as if this family isn’t stressed enough). Alma falls in love with a soldier she nursed back to health who happened to be a duke and marries him after the war. (I would definitely read that romance novel 15 times.) Kat goes to Radcliffe to study archaeology and manages to help excavate King Tut’s tomb. In Egypt she meets her future husband, a physician, and they settle in New York where Kat takes up a position teaching classics at Barnard.

Rating: A. You know, the first time I read this one I was bored by it—but now I’m not sure why. It’s thrilling! It has so much drama! Suffrage! War! And I seriously adore the very real, very frustrated feelings Kat has—she is too young to really get involved in anything but she’s old enough to feel all the horrors of everything. And I love that she’s not a great student, but she manages to find her passion in Latin and classics and I love that she goes on to teach. This is one of the DA books about a wealthy family, and it’s such an excellent way of showing that their wealth doesn’t insulate them from these things—war, terror, you name it. It’s so well done. I love it. Kathryn Lasky is the best.

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