Thursday, March 29, 2012

Worrals of the WAAF by WE Johns

In the '90s you could find old Biggles books in the library, but WE Johns's other works were scarcer than hen's-teeth. It wasn't until we got access to the internet that I found out Johns had written other books, too. Among these were two other series, a little like Biggles spin-offs, launched when WWII made flying-aces and war stories popular again. The Gimlet books were about commandos wreaking havoc in occupied France. And Worrals, the distaff Biggles, was invented to give the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) a little positive publicity.

I found this book in a church library in Melbourne. Hawthorn Presbyterian: great sermons, WE Johns laid on. Where was I?

Flight Officer Joan Worralson and friend Betty Lovell—more commonly known as Worrals and Frecks—work with the WAAF flying airplanes from one place to another, a job Worrals is getting tired of. After her Spitfire-flying RAF friend Bill Ashton teaches her to fly a fighter plane, Worrals is asked to fly the plane over to another aerodrome where it is urgently needed. Along the way she spots a German aircraft and shoots it down, but not before picking up a few clues. German bombers have been hitting their targets pretty easily lately lately and all of a sudden Worrals thinks she knows how. Not even Bill will believe her, so Worrals and Frecks decide to investigate themselves—and stumble upon something far bigger than they imagined.

There was very little to distinguish this book from a Biggles book, save that Worrals is a lot less experienced and, being a girl, is not allowed to be a fighter pilot.
Think what propaganda the enemy would make of the incident if it were learned that—er--ladies were now manning British fighter aircraft.”
It might give them ideas in the same direction,” suggested Worrals. “The guns fired just as well for me as if a noble Wing Commander had pressed the button.”
This surprised me somewhat, because Johns usually keeps the girls out of harm's way in his books--understandably, since they are written for boys that don't want "beastly girls" getting in the way of the action. But unfortunately, that seems to be the only reason: Worrals is as good as a man, and from what I've heard of the sequels, doesn't seem to be afraid to mention it.

This, combined with the similarity of the writing style and plot to every Biggles book I've read, makes the book a little surreal. In moments of absent-mindedness, one forgets that the protagonists are women at all.

Worrals of the WAAF was a quick, fun read. I wouldn't necessarily avoid it because of the feminist slant—after all, books like Pollyanna and LM Alcott's Rose in Bloom are far more insidious—but I would be aware of it and discuss it with young readers.


Radagast said...

A female Biggles! How unexpected!

Apparently Johns was specifically requested by the Air Ministry to write these books about the WAAF. However, the books don't describe the work of the WAAF at all: they describe the "Atta Girls" of the Air Transport Auxiliary (Amy Johnson may have been one of the models for "Worrals").

Why such a false series of books about the WAAF? It's a bit of a mystery. Possibly it was just a wartime recruitment activity. Possibly Johns just wanted something vague that allowed for female adventures. Possibly Johns was covering up some of the secret things that the WAAF did do, like helping the code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park (apparently Johns had gotten much to close to the truth in Biggles in the Baltic).

I must admit, though, I've read none of the Worrals books, not even Worrals Down Under.

Suzannah said...

I think all those possiblies are good explanations. Not that this book has much to do with the WAAF/ATA anyway, as the plot goes something like this: Worrals complains about her boring WAAF job, Worrals interrupts a boring WAAF job to shoot down some Germans, Worrals spends a weekend on leave spy-hunting, the end.

As traditional with wartime novelists, Johns did say at some point that he could tell you some really thrilling stories of the WAAF if he was allowed, but everything's classified...

Lady Bibliophile said...

Hello, Suzannah!
I have tagged you, at My Lady Bibliophile, if you would care to participate. :)
(I didn't know what this was, until Wednesday...)


Kim Marsh said...

The pity is that women's real role in the war and the real sacrifices they made is so rarely chronicled in fiction. I said rarely not never. It is not the
Girls who may have read Worrals who went on to serve in front line forces but their grand-daughters who in all probability have never heard of the books.

Kara Dekker said...

I find your final mention of Pollyanna and Rose in Bloom quite intriguing. It's been years since I read those books, and at the time I was only vaguely aware of feminism. To what are you referring--basic plotlines, or specific portions of the stories?

Suzannah said...

Mainly the basic plotlines, Kara. It's more pronounced in the Alcott books. Perhaps I am being a little hard on Pollyanna; but I've often felt uncomfortable about that book--any real child behaving like that would be a busybody and a menace, don't you think? It popped into my head that maybe this was feminism--look at the sweet little girlchild, fixing the problems in society!


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