Bille Campbell is an individual. The year is 1911 and in Motor Maids School Days she decides to attend school for the year in West Haven, since her father will be working in Russia for the year and she is motherless. She stays with an elder cousin, Helen Campbell. Spinster Helen acts as both chaperone and guide to Billie. West Haven is a seaside town, filled with seaports, strange people, and high school hijinks. Fifteen year old Billie drives up to the school in her own bright red motorcar, which becomes the centerpiece for many adventures to come.
This book is the first in the very short Motor Maids series for teen girls. My copy belonged to my grandmother, and she loved it enough after receiving it sometime around age fourteen to keep it for the next 65 years.
Turn of the Century Culture
And there’s a lot to love with this book. To begin with, it starts off a six-book series which leads the Motor Maids far away from the sleepy seaport town of West Haven. Motor Maids School Days is a look into the culture of the early 1900s. Yes, it’s fiction. But it also tackles topics that most of us only read about in passing. Or those cultural artifacts we see in an old photo and wonder what happened.
For one thing, the book explains high school girls’ clubs. The high school sophomore class of girls at West Haven High School is divided into two groups: The Mystic Seven and the Blue Birds. The Blue Birds consists of all the girls not in the Mystic Seven. Seventeen of the girls join the Blue Birds. Reading carefully shows the ebb and flow of interaction between the two clubs, as the book talks about get-togethers, outings, and overnights.
School Days also talks a lot about the class system of 1900 – 1915. Some families are in, and others are out – merely based on their financial position within the town. It contains characters who are “haves” as well as those who are “have nots,” and weaves them nicely through the pages of the novel. Sometimes you feel like you get to know supporting characters better than you do the protagonist Billie. Elinor Butler introduces us to her seafaring family, and Mary Price shows us life with her mother’s tearoom.
You also read about vintage fashion and how it reflected social status. For someone fascinated by the fashions of 1910-1915, this could be worth reading the book on its own. Ulsters, veils, wraps, and dresses all take their place as part of the story.
Wrapped up in all this vintage detail you discover a mystery. Billie and her friends find themselves involved in a bizarre cat and mouse game, avoiding people whose names they don’t know as they attempt to unravel the threads that lead to an answer.
Signs of the Times
Because the book appeared in 1911, it contains outdated terms and ideas. One of the girls in the story is overweight, and although she appears in several of the stories and is a general favorite of everyone, they still tease her. Even though West Haven sits as a port town, with ships arriving with cargo from everywhere, some of the visiting characters have unflattering descriptions. These serve to increase suspense in the novel, and perhaps that is how they were intended, but at times they seem odd, especially on this fourth or fifth reading of the novel. And of course, because of the time period, servants are sometimes identified by race.
Who was Katherine Stokes?
Also a sign of the times, a lengthy search turned up nothing about the author. The book’s publisher, Hurst & Company, specialized in series books by the time the Motor Maids books released, and the company folded in 1919. If Hurst managed to stay in business, we might have even more Motor Maids books to read. Katherine Stokes, the author, appears nowhere. Only six books carry her name in any search and these are the Motor Maids books. Katherine may have been a pen name for an author or committee that churned out series books.
With absolutely no evidence to support this, I also suggest that she may have been a real person. Katherine Stokes might have taught seventh grade in Hartford, Connecticut. A Katherine Stokes appears in the Hartford school listings for the years before and after the Motor Maids books were published. A seventh grade teacher stood in a perfect position to write a series about independent teenagers. This Katherine was single, and she rented rooms and houses through this entire period, so she probably had the time to devote to constructing six books. This, however, is complete conjecture. If anyone has information on Katherine Stokes the author, I would love to know her story.
Get Your Copy
You too can read Motor Maids School Days. One of the great things about these older books is that they are freely available. This bodes well for readers who love turn of the century fiction. You can download a copy from the Internet Archive here, or you can download it or read it online at Project Gutenberg, here. Download a free Kindle version from Amazon. Amazon also sells reprints. If you want an original 1911 copy, and your grandmother or great-grandmother doesn’t have one, try eBay.