Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

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.

War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans***

warandturpentineI received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review. Though it wasn’t a good fit for me, I think there are niche readers out there that might enjoy it.

This memoir chronicles the life of the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a Dutch worker that fought in World War I. The son of a brilliant artist, Martien worked whatever jobs were available until the war broke out. He had hoped to become an artist like his father before him, but instead wound up painting buildings just to earn a living.

Apart from its historic aspect, this title is one that I knew would be outside my comfort zone. Since retirement I’ve pushed myself outside my usual well-worn paths and taken a few risks, and though it doesn’t always work out for me, a few unlikely choices have affected me so favorably and so deeply that I have continued to push my own walls outward. I don’t know a thing about art, but I thought it might not matter. I pushed myself to read The Goldfinch, which was about a stolen museum painting but also much more, and once I did I couldn’t believe I had let the DRC pass me by. So I had this in my mind; War and Turpentine might be one more opportunity that I shouldn’t miss.

The basis for the memoir is a series of notebooks that the author’s grandfather gave him, a journal of sorts, and the memoir itself is done not in the usual linear fashion, but as a series of snapshots. I confess I prefer my memoirs to start at the beginning and end at the end, if not the end of life, then at the end of the period being discussed. But an artist would perhaps not have thought that way; I can see the reason for selecting a different format, but because there was no discernible story arc, I found myself floundering and eventually avoiding the book altogether.

The prospective reader should know that along with some really strong imagery and other word smithery, the memoir contains some very graphic violence.

I suspect the ideal reader for War and Turpentine would be one that loves art, art history, and European history.  It is for this niche audience that I recommend this book.

Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War, by Christine E Hallett ****

veiled warriorsKudos 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.

Harry’s War: A British Tommy’s Experiences in the Trenches in World War One, by Harry Stinton ****

harryswar Harry’s War is a journal that was kept by a British soldier during World War I. It is remarkable not because it is eloquent or poetic in any way, but because it is complete (regarding his own experience) and because he is capable in his explanations. The illustrations are particularly interesting, well done and useful to the reader, breaking up what might otherwise become dull text in places. He also mentions small but singular experiences that break up a sometimes-monotonous march.

Harry is chosen to toss bombs because of his excellent throwing arm. This talent gets him out of some of the unpleasant detail such as night watch duty, but it is also a position even more fraught with danger than what others experienced. He lasts nearly two and a half years before being wounded and sent home. Part of the time he serves is in the less dangerous capacity of “batman”, which was a term that designated the personal assistant of an officer, and it’s possible this accounts for some of the time he stayed out of harm’s way. In particular, he is able to view the battle at the Somme where some 60,000 casualties occurred as an onlooker rather than as a participant; in some ways, this makes his account more useful, because he saw a wider swath of the action. Most of the time, though, he is doing what a soldier does.

I was particularly bemused by the change in his perspective as his tenure became more intense. Before seeing battle, he complains about things like not having privacy for his bath, and being expected to sleep in a “dirty barn” instead of a house. Later he considers himself fortunate when he gets into a nice dry trench, especially when there are no rats or lice about. He becomes increasingly more stoic and toward the end when he says a thing is “unbearable”, you know it really is.

Harry marches across France and through Belgium, and he also encounters soldiers from Canada, Scotland, and Australia. It’s quite an education for him, and he relays it well to the reader, though it is unlikely he ever expected such a wide readership.

As is so often the case when reading military history, you really don’t want this on an e-reader. Get the book so you can see the illustrations. They are frequent and lend much to the reader’s understanding of the text.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Marque *****

This has been labeled the best anti-war novel ever written. I agree. We see the first world war (“The Big One”) through the eyes of a young German soldier.

Some have held “Johnny Got His Gun” to be the best anti-war novel; I disagree, because that novel holds out no hope. When all is lost at the beginning and never gets better, it fails to draw the reader’s emotion. Marque is singularly skilled at reaching right down into the reader’s chest and wrapping his scholarly fingers right around our heartstrings. (Don’t look for this term in a physiology text.)

AQWF, on the other hand, develops character and setting sufficient to take us there, to nearly climb inside the skin of someone going through the experience.

Is there such a thing as a war worth fighting and dying in? I think so…but very rarely so, and this novel helps us understand the need for restraint and caution.

Note to teachers: though this is outstanding literature and many students enjoy it, it requires a very strong reader in terms of ability and vocabulary.