One great thing about the increase in representation of Black people in different mediums is that we are constantly learning about untold stories. And on top of that, who doesn’t love when an interest turns out exactly as advertised? I’m happy to say that when it comes to Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson, this historical fiction about Black women serving in the first troop of its kind in the U.S. during World War II, what you see in the description is what you get.
Grace Steele and Eliza Jones are two Uptown NYC young Black women in the 1940s, but their similar zip codes and choice to sign up for the Women’s Army Corps are where their shared qualities begin and end. Grace is an aspiring concert pianist and composer whose prowess on the keys have her heralded as the Mozart of Harlem before she graduated middle school. After the unfortunate timing of a telegram from the U.S. Army spins her one in a million audition for Julliard into a disaster, Grace follows an impulse—and a flyer from Mary McLeod Bethune—to join the brand new initiative getting women into administrative roles in the U.S. Army during World War II. Dodging humid rain, her anxieties, and many a microaggression, she does just that at a downtown office where she bumps into Eliza Jones, the only other Black woman in line to enlist that day. While there would be a level of bonding in this experience alone, Grace’s judgemental nature leads her to try to uppercut the other woman’s confidence.
No need to feel sorry for Eliza Jones though. A woman boasting a degree from Howard University and family ties to her field of choice, journalism, Eliza has so much going for her. In fact, it is her pent up grievances with her father’s blockage of her dreams that lead her to the same line she meets Grace in. This mismatch of privilege and personality colors the semi-friendship of these two characters throughout the story. They attend boot camp together, end up in the same unit overseas after a year apart, and find themselves in deep conflict, yet rely on each other in all of their enlisted time together. We get a hint of the different worlds of 1940s Harlem, Des Moines, Birmingham, England, and Rouen, France as they make their way into active service sorting and organizing mail delivery to units in combat after months of delay.
While this novel is chock full of vignettes into different aspects of these women’s experiences during World War II, I was a bit disappointed by how little we get about their actual time spent abroad. It actually comprises the shortest portion of the book. Generally, the story remains interesting enough because it tells stories that have yet to be told and will likely be a good find for anyone interested in fictional accounts of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. A true entry in historical fiction canon!