Book Reviews

Book Review – Grace and Grit

GRACE AND GRIT: Motorcycle Dispatches from Early Twentieth Century Women Adventurers.  By William M. Murphy.  Traverse City, Michigan: Arbutus Press, 2012.

Grace and Grit coverThis book rewards faith in impressive accomplishments from seemingly unlikely sources.  It is after all a short book by a regional press but has national implications in a growing field.

Murphy gives almost a third of his book to an introductory context for the women motorcyclists’ part in rapidly changing America’s pace and prospects between 1890 and its entry into World War One.  Murphy’s literary capacity in these pages would work to especially good effect in introductory courses on America’s car culture.  In chapter three, for example, he does not merely describe the inadequacies of America’s roads for long-distance automotive travel before the accumulation of successive legislative acts in a federal highway system by the mid-1920s but explains the political culture that resisted a system and the absence of pubic knowledge beyond a few miles from any particular point on the existing dirt roads to create a paved highway from them for distant automobilists passing through.  His brief history of the gasoline station to understand the challenges overcome in enabling a rationalized system to serve travelers typifies his incorporation of the mundane to make the big development understandable.  Murphy’s chapter stands in marked contrast with the conventional litany of the politicians and administrators formulating the legislative framework of the federal highway system.  A rare outline of Americans’ gradual adoption of the motorcycle–the number declined between the late 1910s and the 1940s–and the social mores that but few women dared put aside to drive motorcycles give the fourth and fifth chapters before launching into the adventures of the women motorcyclists chronicled at length.

Della Crewe, a young world traveler even before her acquaintance with a motorcycle, started in Waco, Texas in June 1914, partnered with Rachel Foster in Wisconsin through Pennsylvania, went to New York City and the Caribbean, and returned after a year.  She would have gone around the globe except for the world war.  All of this Murphy traced not through the ease of reference to a journal but diligently compiled from one oil company’s and numerous newspaper articles.  In 1915, Effie Hotchkiss (an Upstate New Yorker by birth) and her mother motorcycled back and forth across the United States, an adventure for which Murphy was able to rely on Effie’s journal and a newspaper article she wrote.  Seven photographs from the family album highlight the account.  The Van Buren sisters, Augusta and Adeline, began motorcycling only three years before.  In 1916, they completed their one-year trip from New York City to Tijuana, Mexico.  Newspaper articles in installments across the route, articles in motorcycle trade magazines, and four photographs from the Van Buren’s family album provide the documentation.  Information Murphy acquired for the last four women’s later lives enabled him to summarize them as models of intellect and perseverance.

In-text notes, maps, numerous photographs (Murphy made in his own journey after his subjects), a list of references, and a timeline of “Noteworthy Events: 1885-1925” complement the book.  The Turnerian grounding of Murphy’s epilogue that the female motorcyclists at the center of his book reaffirmed that frontiers made for America’s strength, albeit in this case reformulating definitions of gender as well as overcoming a tough landscape: these may stir doubt.  That too, nonetheless, can broaden learning as an outcome of engaging lively discussions, making this book a rewarding read.  Unquestionably it adds motorcycling that is largely absent in the growing scholarship about automobility and obviously woman motorcyclists.

Keith A. Sculle is the retired Head of Research and Education, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and author of many articles and books about automobiles and highways for academic and general readers.

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