‘WAVES on the Potomac’: La Jolla native’s first novel highlights women’s service during World War II
Switching from statistics to fiction writing might be challenging for some, but local resident Ruth Ann Bush made it her pandemic project to spotlight a largely unknown story of women who worked to aid America’s World War II effort.
Bush’s first novel, “WAVES on the Potomac,” published in January, is a story about a woman who leaves her job teaching math in Brooklyn, N.Y., to enlist in officer training for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) at Smith College in Massachusetts.
The protagonist becomes a code breaker in Washington, D.C., deciphering Japanese radio transmissions and finding herself embroiled in a dangerous undercover intelligence operation.
Bush, a La Jolla High School alumna who now lives in University City with her husband and two teenage sons, will sign copies of “WAVES on the Potomac” at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, at Warwick’s bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla.
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The book’s main character is based on Bush’s great-aunt Sarah Crowley, a math teacher whose scant stories about her participation in World War II prompted Bush to interview her for a Princeton University undergraduate project.
“I blatantly lied to her,” Bush said. “I told her I had to interview somebody who had been in World War II.”
Crowley told Bush about attending officer training school at Smith, referring to it as “the best time of her life, the most amazing experience,” Bush said.
Crowley never detailed her war assignments and died a couple of years after Bush wrote her paper. Bush went on to earn an undergraduate degree in history from Princeton and a master’s in women’s history from the University of London before returning to California to complete a Ph.D. in public health at UC San Diego in La Jolla.
Bush worked in research at Pfizer and Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego before becoming a professor of statistics in health sciences at the University of San Diego.
“I’ve been teaching and doing research ever since,” she said.
Crowley’s story stayed with Bush, and during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, she began ruminating on her great-aunt’s wartime experiences.
“It gnawed at me [that I] didn’t know more,” Bush said.
She revisited the college paper she wrote about Crowley and began to research with plans to write a novel about a female character with a mathematics background who becomes a code breaker — though Bush isn’t certain her great-aunt was a code breaker.
The book allowed Bush to tap into her “less analytical” side, as the character “couldn’t just be breaking codes, because frankly, that’s pretty tedious.” The character is shown living on her own in Washington against the backdrop of World War II.
“I threw in a little bit of intrigue,” Bush added. “Top secret material is enticing to different people for different reasons.”
“There’s a real trajectory to the jobs that we have because of those women [in World War II].”
— Ruth Ann Bush
To flesh out her novel, Bush researched heavily, starting with bits she had learned in London about “voices we hadn’t heard, stories we didn’t know about,” she said.
Bush read old Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal articles about women who had become WAVES during the war, and devoured other resources.
“I was amazed what I could find on the internet in terms of source material,” she said.
Bush wrote in the early morning before switching gears to teach statistics on Zoom, review students’ dissertations and oversee her sons’ home schooling.
“WAVES on the Potomac” gave Bush an opportunity to balance her need for accuracy — based on her training in health research — with creative liberties taken to fill in gaps in the research left by confidentiality agreements.
But on all pages, Bush said, she strove “to be really truthful and respect [the] women who were making a huge sacrifice.”
The novel unearthed many stories about a dearth of women in mathematical roles, including some from her own experiences, she said.
During a math class in her first semester at Princeton, “I asked the professor where the bathroom was because I hadn’t seen any of the women’s restrooms,” Bush said. “He said they didn’t have bathrooms above the second floor because the secretaries didn’t come up any higher.”
Bush said she hopes the book will help illuminate the strides women have made for decades in typically male arenas.
“There’s a real trajectory to the jobs that we have because of those women [in World War II],” Bush said.
Her research led Bush to more questions, and she is working on the book’s sequel, which will move the character to San Diego in the latter stages of the war.
To purchase “WAVES on the Potomac,” visit bit.ly/RAnnBush. ◆