Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fictionalized History)

I absolutely loved this book — one of the best pieces of fictionalized history I’ve read in a long time. The subject is the recruitment of female Telephone Operators to manage the switchboards in France during WWI as part of the Signal Corps.

Few people alive today can remember a time when every single call made using a telephone had to go through an actual person to be connected. And physical lines had to be in place for any call to be connected. Now picture the war torn fields of France during WWI — physical lines had to be laid and relaid to remote and exposed pieces of war terrain, and operators had to be in place in multiple locations to connect calls to send out new orders, to get reports, to contact other units and allies. It is estimated that during the two years the 223 bilingual women were in place, they connected over 26 million calls.

In this book, the history IS the story, not the backdrop for a romance or a mystery, and the story is rich and full of historical, technical, and personal detail. Characters — both real and fictional — are true to the time as they reflect on their roles, worries, and hopes. We get all the details of their lives: training, required uniforms, wildly varying accommodations, gas mask training, the conditions of the locals, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and appreciation they slowly earn from the initially skeptical men. Also, the strong patriotism each of them feels — true to the time, patriotism is not the dirty word it appears to have become today. This book is well researched (an excellent and long bibliography available at the back) and does not sink into melodrama — there are no broken hearts, gratuitous sobbing, or overwhelming romances. These women were competent, had an important purpose, and thrived in an environment of hard work, pressure, and real need. It wasn’t all rosy — after the war they were treated as volunteers and were discharged without proper veterans benefits. This was not rectified until 1977 when only 50 of the women were still alive.

The narrative follows three women (one real, two fictional) as they go through the process from recruitment shortly after the U.S. enters the war through the Versailles Peace Talks: Grace Banker of New Jersey (who later received the Distinguished Service Medal), Marie Miossec (a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer), and Belgian born Valerie DeSmedt (whose widowed mother ran a boarding house in Los Angeles).

Highly recommended.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.