Book Reviews

Review: Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini

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My Interest

World War I and it’s preceding and following historical epochs are favorites of mine. President Wilson, long admired for his foreign policy ideals (he suffered a debilitating stroke trying to get the US into the League of Nations) was in truth, not what people thought. He re-segregated the government, for a start. It is a fascinating time. He had backtrack on the promise “He kept us out of war” that got him re-elected. But the war did bring some opportunities to women and gave the promise, finally, of women’s suffrage nationwide.

In addition, I enjoyed a previous book by this author, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, and, to a lesser degree, another of her books, Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters.

The Story

One of the careers that opened to provide women with careers outside of domestic service was the new telephone industry. Women were employed as switchboard operators. Like every other type of women’s employment of the period, they were subjected to morals clauses that men did not have to endure, but it was still a way to earn a living without “living in.”

In the World War I, bilingual telephone operators (English and French fluency required) were recruited for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. While treated as though holding the same rank as Army nurses, they were not granted Veteran’s Status. Our story concerns three women popularly (and annoyingly) known as “Hello Girls” or “Switchboard Soldiers:” Grace, Marie, and Valerie who all volunteer to serve. After training, they embark for France where they help General Pershing and the American “Doughboys” put down the Kaiser and help win the war. French or Belgian, or of French Canadian roots, the girls are fluent in French, well educated, and have the manners and mores of the middle class.

Once overseas the women give their all to serving our country. Along the way they make good friends, help the local community and even find love. Thankfully, they each too seriously that they were “the first” and had to obey each rule to the letter–so there is no modern day jumping in and out of beds with guys. No Spoilers, but I was left admiring one character for knowing herself. That’s all I’ll say on that.

My Thoughts

I enjoyed this story, but thought the author was a little to “prescient” in sounding the music of doom with things like the Spanish flu–it wasn’t known at the time it entered the story that it would be a worldwide killer. Also, imposing the recent COVID-era mask debate into the story wasn’t helpful. (At least I didn’t catch any references to the Republicans!).

I thought the characters were likeable and mostly believable. All behaved in a way believable for the historical era, but none of the three really stood out to me. They were fairly “generic” though, admittedly, that could really just be from my “blues” of the moment. I liked the book very well and liked that other than the mask problem, nothing “modern” seeped into the story.

There was a bit too much for my taste of telling news headlines and historical scene-setting, but sadly today much of that is necessary. Does anyone even learn about World War I today? I wonder. I recall my kids doing a sound byte history of the world from the ancient Egyptians to Desert Storm in one school year, so I’m trying to not get as “peeved” by this pet peeve in historical fiction as I used to!

I did tear up (again) when the tragic story of one of my history crushes, General “Blackjack” Pershing was told. So sad. I’m glad that was included.

My Verdict

3.5

Switchboard Soldiers: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

My reviews of other books by this author:

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters (click to go to my review)

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (from my old blog):

“I was enthralled by Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker! Elizabeth Keckly deserves a place of prominence in Civil War-era history and beyond. Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental illness is portrayed respectfully and accurately here. Mrs. Keckly’s ability to cope with “The Hellcat” as President Lincoln’s aides termed the First Lady, let alone her ability as a designer and seamstress, was vividly portrayed here.”

 

6 thoughts on “Review: Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini

  1. Well, you liked this much more than I did. It was a DNF for me. All the backstories in the beginning were so annoying, and so boring, that I didn’t connect with any of the main characters so I gave up after about 20%, I’m afraid. I see from your review that there are even more things that would have bothered me if I had continued reading. Now, if you were okay with this, but didn’t care for all the historical fillers, try reading “Girls on the Line” by Aimie Runyan – I’ve reviewed it on my blog.

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  2. Good review! I’m much more likely to read a book set during WWI than WWII at this point — the WWII setting has just been way overdone, at least to me. And yeah, too bad she had to do a Spanish flu/covid tie in. I’m honestly not ready to read any pandemic/covid books!

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  3. I am wondering how much I would relate to this book since I was a switchboard operator before our small town in southern Indiana got the dial system. That was way back in 1957 and 58. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a switchboard operator but it was a job when I got out of high school and back then, you took what you could get! I enjoyed your review.

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