I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.
Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.
A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I. “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.
Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.
Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.
I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:
[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.
But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.
By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.
The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.
I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.
I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.
“Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’
“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”
Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later. I was fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.
Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.
“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”
I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.
The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.
But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass. And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.
About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.
As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.
Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:
“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”
But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”
She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.
The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.
And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!
Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers. Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.
Highly recommended to everyone.
Kudos to Hallett for a comprehensive yet concise history of the heroes who remain misty and unseen at the edges of the battlefields, military nurses of the first world war. She has tried to interview or access material about nurses from every single nation that participated on the Allied side, and it turns out that is a lot more countries than I had realized. Though she was limited by the fact that she does not speak many different languages and could not always get interpreters, she has done a remarkably solid job. Thank you to Oxford University Press and Net Galley for the chance to read it prior to its mid-October publication.
Hallett traces the evolution of the military nursing protocol, from hauling endless wounded from the faraway fields (prior to the development of the trench system) and treating those who survived the ungentle trip across rough roads in wagons, then later trains; to the mobile systems that went closer to the battlefield—different systems used in Western Europe than those used by Russia and much of Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and North America—and she notes the awareness of germs and need to flush the wounds before the development of penicillin. My back ached for the heroic nurses—both those professionally trained, known as “sisters” though they were not nuns—to the women from elite classes who decided it was time to man up and leave their gentrified hothouse environments and travel to places where they could do some good, to the military interns that later joined some of them. Initially they were treating patients who lay on the floor. In one situation, there were 8 nurses for 600 patients. Some nurses had to run when the enemy advanced, and others were captured.
She speaks about the term “shell shock” catching on, but how suspicious the British public seemed to be of soldiers who were sick, especially mentally ill, as opposed to those who came away without limbs or other visible injuries.
She described frostbitten toes actually falling off in trenches! I knew amputations often had to happen, but falling off? This was news to me. A shudder ran through me. And it happened again when she described the arcing of the Tetanus-ridden soldier’s body as every muscle seized. The horror!
I was outraged to hear that hospital trains and ships were fired upon by the enemy. In one such case, when the Turks fired across the bow, it was commented by someone in command that the enemy could have sunk the ship, but just wanted to remind the hospital ship to act like a hospital ship. This made me wonder whether any of the Allied forces were so unrestrained as to use hospital conveyance as a means to smuggle armaments, as was the case during the second world war when cruise ships and merchant marines smuggled armaments in their hold; but this is a digression and so of course, Hallett does not go there. But the fact that I read all this information and came away with new questions speaks to how informative and engaging Hallett’s work is.
If you have an interest in nursing history, military history, or a combination of the two, this is sure to answer your questions. I confess I would have liked more of a story-like quality to the prose, like a narrative nonfiction, but that is just a picky detail. Hallett’s research is meticulous—check the endnotes that comprise about 25% of the text; everything she gives us is fastidiously documented, and she has gone to so many sources that the ordinary reader could never access, the hallmark of worthwhile historical research.
Both the researcher and the humble blogger greatly appreciate the summaries included at the end of each chapter, which largely relieved me of the need to flag pages. This is especially useful given the lack of filler in this work. Every page was essential, and so I was flagging almost everything till I came to the summaries.
Strong work and well done, in short.
Every one of the Allied nations of World War I should award Hallett a medal of her own.
MacMillan’s hefty, well-researched tome has been nominated for prestigious awards and received rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review and the Christian Science Monitor. It is the most scholarly and thorough a treatment of the period from 1900 to 1914 of any I have seen. Thank you to the first reads program at Goodreads and to the publisher for a chance to read it and review it free of cost.
If I were planning to teach a college seminar on the causes of the first world war, I would absolutely include this book in my assigned reading. It is made more interesting and approachable with occasional photographs—primary documents—as well as political cartoons to abbreviate the text. (I believe this time period is also the starting gun for the use of political cartoons in journalism.) I suspect that in the future it will be regarded as the go-to source for this topic and time period. MacMillan’s organization and documentation are spot-on.
That said, I was a little disappointed to see this subject addressed so singularly and steadfastly from the top down. Of course, while discussing tension among the ruling classes of the most powerful imperial nations, along with those who are up-and-coming, like Japan and the USA, one must discuss the interests of those who hold the most wealth and power, since it is they who will call on the workers and peasants of the world to go fight in their interests. That said, it would have been interesting to see more of these popular sentiments included also. After all, wars have been won and also lost by how badly the working classes did or didn’t want victory. Every soldier has the opportunity to lag behind or forge ahead at some point.
That being said, MacMillan does a fine job explaining the configuration of the nation states that existed before the war, and the numerous tensions that were near the breaking point before the assassination of the archduke. For those who have scratched their heads and wondered at exactly why such a monstrous conflagration should arise over the murder of Ferdinand, MacMillan sets context and perspective expertly.
If you are researching a subject that overlaps or includes this time period, this is a great source, and the index will help you find the information you need without attempting to tackle the whole volume. And though other reviewers have referred to a novel-like narrative, I did not find it that absorbing; my sense is that this is better used as a research source.
A job well done.