Our Duty evokes life in wartime Kansas

By Ted Ayers | March 3, 2020

Our Duty by Gerri Hilger (Kat Biggie Press, 2018, 301 pages, $15.99)

Gerri Hilger is a life long resident of Kansas who lives in Hutchinson. She retired after more than 35 years of teaching high school students, and she now enjoys writing and traveling with her husband to visit children and grandchildren. She recently shared an autographed copy of her book with me, and I am glad she did. She describes her book as “the mostly true stories of people of the greatest generation from Wichita, Sedgwick and Reno Counties.”

Our Duty revolves around the lives of Pauline «Polly» Garrity and Agnes «Aggie» Beat, who are, as the story begins, student nurses at the Saint Francis School of Nursing, class of 1943. Polly’s unique “salute” to the new pilots on training maneuvers from McConnell Air Force Base, given from the top of the student nurses’ dorm on a hot summer day, quickly made her a favorite character of mine.

This book is a charming, respectful and loving tribute to another era in the American experience. The early 1940s were a time of sacrifice, shortages, rationing and hardship when Americans, young and old, lived with the heavy weight of a global war as family members and loved ones risked their lives in Europe, Africa and the Far East. It was a time when young men and women volunteered for military service and/or alternatively felt conflicted by the urgent need for planes, tanks, equipment, food and other materiel, which required many to stay home to operate the factories and work the fields (often to their extreme chagrin and embarrassment!).

It was also a time when barn dances, flirting and an occasional “snort” from a hidden bottle of alcohol provided relief and release on a Saturday night. Of course, these Saturday nights were often the precipitating backdrop to falling in love.

There are multiple references in Our Duty to life in Kansas and to communities such as Wichita, Colwich and Pretty Prairie. In that regard, this is very much a book about life in middle America and the people who make it special. The trials and tribulations  of young women learning to become nurses under the strict tutelage of the nuns, such as Sister Gregory (secretly referred to as “Sister Gorgon” by Polly) at Saint Francis, provides further insight into another time (when the lifestyles, makeup and morals of the young women nursing students was very much a part of the educational process). Hilger also is able to provide a look into the wartime experience of nurses with the use of an exchange of letters between Polly and Aggie (back when people wrote letters!), after Aggie volunteers to become a flight nurse and gets sent into action.

Ted’s Top 10

You could say our book reviewer, Ted Ayres, is something of a reader. Last year he finished 82 books. Ayres, former general counsel and vice president at Wichita State University, also reviews books for KPTS’ show “Inside the Cover.” Below are his 10 favorite books from last year. He can be reached at tedayes47@gmail.com.:

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens, 2018)

American Dialogue (Joseph Ellis, 2018)

Leadership: In Turbulent Times (Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2018)

The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson, 2010)

The Overstory (Richard Powers, 2018)

The Pioneers (David McCullough, 2019)

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead, 2019)

A Girl Stands at the Door (Rachel Devlin, 2018)

The Statesman and the Storyteller (Mark Zwonitzler, 2016)