A Career Romance For Young Moderns: Peggy Parker, Girl Inventor

I was so excited when I found Peggy Parker: Girl Inventor at a rummage sale, but when I started reading, my happiness turned to ash. Despite taking a progressive view towards female inventors, the book is incredibly, how do I put this, racist. So, this time it’s not a recommendation.

I almost didn’t get through this one, kids. How can, on the one hand, a book take one of the most modern approaches I’ve run across towards women in male-dominated industries, but at the same time be filled with caricatures like the family’s faithful retainers, Ben and Teneh, who speak in a minstrel-like, Lol-cat patois that’s hard to read in about every way one can intend those words? And how could, on the one hand, Helen Wells be writing modern, thoughtful career romances while at the same time Ruby Lorraine Radford was writing about the hired hands being scared of ‘haints?’ That is, I suppose, the late ’40s for you.

I don’t recommend seeking this one out, so I’ll give you the upshot. The Heroine, Peggy Parker, is a mechanical wiz who lives with her mother in a northern industrial town, doing work she loves for “the Dodson plant.”

The Dodson officials gave every encouragement to inventive ability. Before Peggy had been with them a year, she made a suggestion that saved them a hundred hours a month on the assembly line. When she invented a gadget that doubled the efficiency of her own machine, she received personal commendation from the president himself. “It’s not often a nineteen-year-old girl shows such inventive genius,” Mr. Frank Dodson said at the annual banquet for the employees, when he was giving Peggy her first award.

When a great-uncle dies, Peggy and her kid brother Joe, recovering from “a spot on his lung” that requires a warm climate, inherit a Georgia farm called “Pine Island.” The family relocates and finds the fort being held down by forementioned couple, Ben and Teneh, who are eager to see the farm returned to its former glory. The place is in rough shape, taxes are due, and everyone advises them to sell. But! Uncle Joe wouldn’t sell land that some English King gave the Parkers, and Peggy and her brother regard this as a sacred trust.

Down South, people are always saying things like, “she looks more like a debutante than an inventor to me!” and “never thought a woman with that kind of turn would be a pretty, gray-eyed miss!” However, Peggy’s family is very supportive: her mother is extremely proud of her technical ability, and her brother says things like, “Peg’s smart as a whip!” and “Peggy’s a real mechanic. She had two years’ experience in an industrial plant – has inventions to her credit, too.”

They quickly meet the Love Interest, “lean, handsome” Ted Marshall, a young lawyer who helps Peggy and Joe claim their property. She is thrilled that his family runs a “completely modern” farm, although Ted’s southern belle sister mocks her interests. “In spite of teasing from the other girls, Peggy spent many hours in the fields, learning how various machines operated, and listening to Mr. Marshall as he pointed out their defects. She spent many hours, too, with tools in the sheds, studying how they were put together.”

Then the villain appears: neighbor Andy Bateman, who has his eye on Pine Island and will do whatever it takes to get it. Accordingly, he spreads rumors of ghosts so Pine Island can’t get any hands to help them out, destroys a bunch of timber, steals an invention of Peggy’s, gets a crooked salesman, “Mr. Meyer,” to sell them a busted cotton-picker, tricks them into mortgaging a choice piece of land, and prevents the corrupt sheriff from investigating anything. To add insult to injury, a gale knocks out the rest of their cotton crop.

Although their mother has taken on stenographic work in town and Peggy’s managed to get a lot of machinery in working order, everything seems doomed! Peggy sells a few inventions to her old factory, but it’s not enough to get the Parkers out of the hole or save their mortgaged land. And then! In quick succession, Peggy has a brainstorm for improving a cotton-cleaner, and a geologist finds the land Bateman so covets is rich with phosphate. Two execs show up, are impressed with cotton that’s “cleaner than hand-picked!” and get into a bidding war. Ted, obviously, announces that they’re going to get married.

Don’t think I won’t be still working on inventions even if I don’t go into a factory again…with Ted over there to be the business manager of our concern, I’ll have more time than ever for inventions.

Peggy Parker
notes several times that the war has changed the way people think about women working, and while in hindsight this seems like postwar optimism, it’s indeed heartening to read about a girl doing such challenging, “men’s” work. But it seems shocking that an author who can appreciate the war’s gains for women, see the equality it imposed between the sexes, can’t make the leap towards viewing African Americans, who’d just helped win the war, as more than retrograde caricatures. I like these career romances because they’re such a true window onto time periods and, especially, young women’s experiences. But at times like this, that can be seriously depressing.

Earlier:A Career Romance For Young Moderns: A Flair For People
A Career Romance For Young Moderns: A Campaign For Pam
A Career Romance For Young Moderns: Designed By Stacey
A Career Romance For Young Moderns: Dreams To Shatter
A Career Romance For Young Moderns: A Special Kind of Love
Career Romance For Young Moderns: Patti Lewis, Home Economist
A Career Romance For Young Moderns: Lee Devins, Copywriter

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