American author Jo-Ann Power’s new historic novel, Heroic Measures, does something scarcely seen in First World War novels, by portraying the war through the eyes of a woman.
Protagonist Gwen is a young nurse who joins the Army Nurse Corps to serve on American front lines, travelling to the battlefields of France and experiencing first hand the horrors of war which are normally only written about in relation to male soldiers.
We spoke to Jo-Ann Power about her motivation for writing the novel, and what she hopes it will achieve.
What inspired you to write this novel about women serving in WWI?
Decades ago, I read a snippet about American nurses who volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps to go abroad and serve Doughboys wounded in battle. I was struck by how unusual it was for a woman of that era to leave her home, her friends, her country, to serve until the war’s end.
Fascinated by their dedication, I began to research their experiences in the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Then, later I went to military installations to read through primary documents.
My motivation to write this novel was based purely on the admiration for these women who gave all with the talents they possessed so that others might live.
Is your protagonist Gwen based on a specific person you found out about during your research, or is she a culmination of many of the people you found out about?
Gwen Spencer is a fabrication, a character created from my imagination and yet authenticated with the historical facts I found. She is young, as many of these nurses were. She is ambitious and dedicated, as these nurses inherently were, enduring long hours, primitive working conditions, little respect and back-breaking, heartbreaking work. I wonder daily if I could ever manage the strength to volunteer for similar kind of duty.
Heroic Measures has been 28 years in the writing. Did you know what you wanted to write when you set out, or did the novel change throughout the process?
I wrote this manuscript for the first time in 1988 and sent it to a New York publisher who was very interested. She took it to her editorial board and they rejected it. Why? ‘No one wants to read about the First World War. This is a good story, but no one will ever buy it. The time period is too depressing.’
I put the novel and my research away in a drawer, and away in my mind. Publishing 18 other novels in the interim, I felt compelled by the subject matter to rewrite it and complement my previous research with new primary documents now available.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War, I know that many people not only need to learn about these women, but also that they will be gratified by the tales of their devotion and endurance.
Women’s role in WWII is much more widely acknowledged than in WWI- why do you think this is?
The women who volunteered during WW1 were the ones who broke through social restrictions to serve during conflict and so close to the battlefields. In the US and the UK, women at that time did not even have the right to vote. The American women in the Army Nurse Corps, for example, were ‘contract labor’ pledged to serve until the war’s end, yet not given rank or pay equal to men.
When these women returned home after the war, those who remained in the Corps pressed for equal rank and pay. They got it and thereby, the women who served during WWII could do so more easily.
The baby boomer generation remembers and honors their parents who served in WWII, and it is that generation that has written the high school and college text books that frame WWI as a mere prelude to WWII.
In Britain, I see much more attention paid in fiction and non-fiction to the women of the early 20th century than in the States. British publishing houses are much more welcoming to novels starring women of this period.
As for gender divide, battlefield books are traditionally written for men; they do not exist for women. And yet, as I illustrate in Heroic Measures, women did serve very close to the battle lines and their fortitude to complete their jobs required enormous emotional stamina and physical bravery.
Why, when WW1 began nearly 100 years ago, do you think it has taken so long for women’s stories to shine through?
In the US, ‘women’s studies’ are a development in academia only in the past 30 years or so. Call it a maturation of the women’s liberation movement. Many professors of women’s studies do focus on the women who worked in the Great War as nurses or doctors, Salvation Army and YMCA workers. These studies show that these women of the WWI period were unique to leave their homes and courageous to go to war.
Now, as Europe approaches 100 years since the start of the Great War, I think we will see a turn toward a study of that first conflict and what it means to us today. Heroic Measures is my contribution to our understanding of the war we might have forgotten—and the women we need to remember.
Heroic Measures is on sale now.
For further information about Jo-Ann Power’s novels, visit her website
You can also see the research process that Jo-Ann went through went writing Heroic Measures on her blog.