In the fall of 1917, eighteen Smith College graduates leave for war-torn France. They’ve volunteered to aid the people of a group of small rural villages that have been devastated by World War I in Band of Sisters by Laruen Willig.
Swept along by a wave of patriotism and good intentions, the young women are ridiculously unprepared for what they will face in France. One of them even plans to shop for her wedding trousseau in Paris, not realizing the toll the war has taken on the city. Although they are all graduates of Smith College and highly educated, most come from privileged families and have few practical skills. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Once the shock of the reality of the situation wears off, the women rally and set out to do their best. They must cope with shortages of food and medical supplies, unreliable transportation (from trains that don’t run on time to a stubborn mule), a complete lack of adequate housing and mud everywhere. They learn to build trucks (their promised trucks arrive unassembled in boxes), handle livestock, scramble and bargain for food and supplies and treat the sick and dying, all against the backdrop of the not-too-distant front lines. Despite differences, they learn their strengths and meld into a team.
Based on true events and people, I quite enjoyed this book. The grit and determination of the women is inspiring as is their ability to adapt and their absolute resolve to help the local people. For much of the book the war felt very distant though; the constant noise of bombing from the not-too-distant front is only occasionally mentioned, the women seemingly more concerned with gossip. It’s not until near the end of the book, when the Germans launch their spring offensive in the Battle of the Somme, that our heroes come face-to-face with the war when they and the people they’ve been helping are forced into a terrifying, chaotic, hasty retreat.
Overall, a satisfying read about a nearly forgotten footnote to history.