Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

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.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney

Even in the midst of a brutal, horrific war, the story of the Lost Battalion – a US Army regiment that, following orders, advanced on German strongholds, outpacing their support and became trapped behind enemy lines – stands out as one of the bloodiest, most worthless engagements of the war. Two unlikely heroes emerge from this nightmare, their lives forever altered in unforeseen ways.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney tells the story, in alternating chapters, of Major Whittlesey, the scholarly, solitary lawyer that led the doomed 77th Division and Cher Ami, the messenger pigeon that is credited with saving those that managed to stay alive.

Cher Ami, born and bred in England and lovingly trained in the proud tradition of messenger pigeons, now resides in the Smithsonian, a taxidermied observer of the humans that pass through the great museum, musing on the changing times and attitudes. The museum goers look on Cher Ami with pity or sorrow, having little knowledge of the breadth of what she saw and experienced, from her bucolic home in England to the war-torn fields of France, the freedom and joy of flight and the mysterious “voice” that brings her home to roost again and again.

Major Whittlesey is also mostly unknown, by his commanders, by the men he leads, by his family and all but his closest friend. Quiet by nature, he is a homosexual at a time in history when it would be dangerous to admit to, so he keeps to himself and his books. At first glance he is completely unsuited to lead soldiers into war, and yet he takes the job seriously, with intelligence and compassion and is loved by his men. When the orders that will doom his division arrive, he knows it will be a disaster, but his objections are overruled. When the battalion is trapped, without food or water for days, surrounded by Germans and running out of ammunition, Whittlesey works tirelessly to encourage his men, offer comfort and support where he can and never backs down.

Just when it seems it couldn’t get any worse, friendly fire begins to rain down on the 77th Division’s trenches – misguided bombs from the Americans. Desperate to end the bombardment, Major Whittlesey sends one messenger pigeon after another (all telephone lines have been cut and  runners have been killed or captured) German snipers target and kill each pigeon as it takes flight until only one remains. Even though she is badly wounded, Cher Ami manages to survive and deliver her message, helping to save the remaining soldiers of the 77th.

Based on true events and people (and pigeon) Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a gripping, sober look at a terrible war and the price it demanded. The long, proud history of homing pigeons, which were used to deliver messages through World War II, was fascinating and a bright counterpoint to the mud and trenches of battle. This is book covers a dark and difficult period of history but Cher Ami’s thoughtful musings and Whittlesey’s dry humor keeps the reader engaged and anxious to find out what happens next. Highly recommended.

 

 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“We all live in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all nations into one great suffering body.”

I have to admit, I took a risk reading The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue due to its extremely timely and grisly content but, that being said, I am extremely glad I read this novel and am excited to share it with you.

This historical fiction novel is set in Dublin, Ireland, and takes place during the most lethal wave of the 1918 Flu Pandemic and WWI. The story primarily revolves around Nurse Julia Powers, who works as a midwife and cares for expecting mothers who have contracted the virus. Not unlike conditions we have witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were described as being completely overrun with patients, severely understaffed, and lacking necessary medical supplies. With that being said, there were also some very different hardships people experienced over a century ago, so this is a very enlightening and humbling glimpse into the experiences of a past pandemic. Taking place over the span of three days, you will experience a whirlwind of emotions as you follow Julia through her incredible work at the hospital and meet several unforgettable women who will haunt you long after you finish the story.

Overall, I found this book to be extremely intense, but definitely worth the read. Not only does this subject hit close to home as we are living through a pandemic ourselves, but the fact that Julia spends most of her time working in the maternity ward lends itself to several passages with explicit descriptions of medical procedures (albeit they are noted as being extremely accurate for the time according to the notes at the end of the book). While I definitely found myself feeling squeamish at times, I was truly in awe and astounded by the seemingly impossible work Julia did for her patients during such a trying time.

This story is also brimming with character development, as you get a chance to intimately meet several women in the confines of the maternity/fever ward and learn their stories over the course of three days. You will definitely find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster, experiencing sorrow and sympathy, hope and love, shock and awe, life and death, and everything in between. I was extremely inspired and humbled by the strength and resilience of humanity in this novel, and this is what ultimately made it well worth the read while living in the midst of COVID-19.

I also found myself extremely interested in the setting and time period of this story itself, as I didn’t know too much about either the 1918 pandemic or the history of Ireland during this period of history before reading. In fact, I was drawn in so much that I immediately found a documentary and podcast to listen to after finishing the book.

All in all, I found this novel to be worth its intensity and, while it may not be the best time to read this particular book for some, it may be relatable and inspirational to others as we live through a pandemic in our own time.

This book is also available in the following formats:

OverDrive eAudiobook

OverDrive eBook

Dying in the Wool: A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody

We meet amateur sleuth and former World War I nurse, Kate Shackleton a few years after the conclusion of the war in her small village of Bridgestead, England in the first book of the Kate Shackleton Mystery series, Dying in the Wool  by Frances Brody.  Kate is still reeling from her husband being declared missing in the war but, at the same time,  continues to hold out hope that he is alive.  As a nurse in the war, Kate has picked up the skills of a sleuth in helping a few fellow nurses find missing loved ones.  She has gained quite the reputation as a novice detective and based on her reputation one fellow nurse, Tabitha Braithwaite, calls on Kate for a mystery of her own.

Tabitha is engaged to be married within weeks and her wish before she walks down the aisle is to find her father, Joshua Braithwaite, who mysteriously disappeared and no trace of him was ever found.  Was Mr. Braithwaite, the owner and operator of a textile mill, a victim of someone with a grudge, did he stage his own disappearance or is the truth something more sinister?  Kate has little time to dig to the bottom of the mystery before Tabitha’s wedding day.  She meets a cast of characters in the village, including many mill workers who may have a grudge against the powerful mill owner and are potential suspects.  Kate, along with Sykes, a former detective who she hires as an employee, get closer and closer to finding the truth with potential murderous results.  Told in alternative chapters merging past and present, Dying in the Wool  gives the reader a glimpse into British society and culture in the early 1920s within a cozy mystery.

One of the most unique aspects of this mystery is the detail that Brody adds to the novel regarding the British textile mill industry immediately following WWI.  It is clear she has done her research, giving the reader a sense of the intricacies of how this industry was run.  Readers of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series may want to consider starting this series (the eleventh book in the series came out in November).  I’m already nearly done the second book, A Medal for Murder, and am looking forward to the third!

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

Edie believes her husband Francis died in 1918 in a horrific battle near the end of World War I when he is declared “missing, presumed killed”. But in 1921 she receives a photo of Francis in the mail with no letter or return address and she begins to wonder if he made it out alive and is waiting for her. She contacts Francis’s brother Harry, and asks him to help her, to either find Francis or find his grave.

Harry, who was with Francis when he was wounded, does not believe Francis is still alive, but he is in love with Edie and will do what he can to help. Harry has been working as a photographer, taking pictures of graves and battle-sites for grieving families back in England and he understands just how chaotic and devastated the French and Belgium countryside is – entire villages have completely disappeared, while others struggle to rebuild, fields are littered with shells and mortar and bones and whole forests are nothing but burned and broken stumps.

Returning to the places that Harry and Francis (and Will, their younger brother who was killed early in the war) fought is difficult for Harry as he is flooded with memories of what they had been, what they went through and what happened to them. It is obvious that Harry is suffering from what we now call PTSD but that he is coping and that Francis also suffered and was broken by the war. In addition, Harry is burdened with the fact that he has been in love with Edie for years and, while nothing happened between Harry and Edie, Francis cannot forgive him.

Edie and Harry, traveling both together and separately, meet a wide range of people suffering in the aftermath of the war – widows and families searching for lost soldiers (many that died were never identified or found) trying to find closure with a grave or memorial, veterans haunted by what they had witnessed, ordinary people struggling to survive.

The Poppy Wife paints an unapologetic portrait of “the Great War” and it’s devastating and long-reaching affects. The chapters move between the three brothers during the war and Harry and Edie’s search for Francis in 1921. Scott’s writing is calm and collected, almost poetic, but the horror and senselessness of what happened on those foreign fields is never far from the surface. And it is nearly impossible to put down as the tension and mystery builds. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in learning more about this time period, I highly recommend Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth (which is not fiction but actually happened to her) which has been made into a mini-series, to watch A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in which footage from the war has been remastered, bringing the time vividly to life.

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Two women from very different worlds form an unbreakable friendship, a friendship that will give them strength during the worst circumstances, even when they are far apart. Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly brings their story vividly to life.

Eliza Ferriday, American and Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian related to the ruling Romanovs, become fast friends when they meet in Paris. Both women are wealthy and lead priviledged lives, but are also kind and compassionate. In 1914 Eliza travels to Russia to visit Sofya, but war breaks out in Europe and Eliza must cut her visit short and return to America. Sofya and her family flee to their country estate outside of St Petersburg, hoping to ride out the war undisturbed. Russia, however, is in turmoil as revolutionaries take up arms against the Tsar and anyone associated with him. The Reds take over the Streshnayva estate, imprisoning the occupants and looting the lavish furnishings.

Sofya manages to escape their captors, but is forced to leave her young son behind in the care of a trusted servant. Now on her own, she must find new depths within herself to survive, learning to gather food in the forest, evade capture from both the Revolutionaries and the invading German army and defend herself as she makes her way across the war ravaged countryside to Paris.

Meanwhile, back in America, Eliza is frantic with worry for her friend, especially as stories from Russian emigres begin to filter in – the violence, the bloodshed and the huge loss of life. Eliza channels her worries into helping the “White Russians” who have escaped the revolution by creating an American relief organization to help them with finding jobs, housing and other aid.

By depicting World War I from within Russia, Lost Roses delivers a new facet of the time period with the addition of the chaos and cruelty that accompanied the Russian Revolution. The huge gap between the very rich, who flaunted their wealth, and majority of people who were desperately poor, is astonishing as is the way the privileged seemed to be blind to the growing danger. As shown here, the Revolution appears out-of-control with vicious in-fighting and random violence leading to little or no improvement for the working class. Lost Roses is the kind of book that is hard to put down and even harder to forget.

Lost Roses is a prequel to the bestselling Lilac Girls, which takes place during and after World War II. Caroline Ferriday, who is a main character in Lilac Girls, is shown as a young woman in Lost Roses. Author Martha Hall Kelly has announced that she is working on another prequel which will be set during the Civil War and will follow Eliza Ferriday’s grandmother.

 

Online Reading Challenge – January Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your reading/listening/movie watching go in January? As I mentioned earlier in the month, I outdid myself and read two medicine-related books! And they were both great!

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. Opening just as the Civil War begins, this book is about a young midwife who yearns to be a surgeon. However, it is nearly impossible for a woman to be admitted to medical school or even to intern with a doctor and Mary has been turned down repeatedly. However, the outbreak of the war creates possibilities and Mary leaves her comfortable home in Albany and travels to Washington alone in an effort to help the wounded. Women as nurses (let alone doctors) are viewed with suspicion and considered unnecessary since, at this exuberant beginning, everyone believes the war will be over in three months. Mary ends up volunteering at an understaffed, poorly supplied, decaying hospital acting more as a cleaning person than a nurse. Gradually the doctor (there is only one doctor for the dozens of wounded) trusts Mary and allows her to assist him, her training as a midwife making her comfortable with blood and suffering. It is training that she will need when the wounded begin pouring in with horrific injuries, many requiring amputation and many that they are helpless to cure.

The Civil War lasted much longer than three months, of course and the reluctance to accept women as nurses was quickly abandoned. Woefully unprepared for the human cost, doctors and nurses struggle to care for patients under brutal conditions. Mary’s story as she navigates harsh realities is fascinating and her courage and strength are inspiring.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason is set during World War I and takes place on the Eastern Front of the war, far removed from the trenches of France but no less horrific. Raised in comfort in opulent Vienna, Lucius has not even completed his medical training when the war breaks out. He volunteers as a surgeon and is sent to a remote outpost in the Carpathian Mountains where a church has been requisitioned as a hospital. Supplies are nearly nonexsistent, the weather is brutal and the only medical personnel is a nurse, some orderlies and Lucius himself who has never actually performed an operation.

Margarete, the nurse, subtly assists Lucius when he must perform amputations almost immediately. Over time they become a team, working to heal their patients and keep them safe. Safe because not only do they have to grapple with injury, disease, shell shock and weather, they must watch out for recruiters who comb the hospitals looking for “deserters” to return to the front. So desperate are they for men, the Army will force anyone back into the war no matter their injury, so long as they can walk.

Relatively safe from the immediate fighting, this changes when the Austrian army suddenly retreats. Caught in the chaos, Lucius and Margarete are separated and lost to each other. Lucius finishes his war in the relative safety of Vienna and then goes in search of Margarete.

I really enjoyed both of these books – they are hard to put down. The wartime action is gripping and both Mary’s and Lucius’ personal stories add another layer – each spends some time at home during their wars and the contrast between battle and home is shocking. The grim realities of war are difficult to read about, but the sad fact is, war has always created many opportunities for the advancement of medicine whether through the discovery of new drugs or new techniques. Reading about some of that and how medical staff coped is fascinating. Both are highly recommended.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month?

Online Reading Challenge – August Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Fans-of-Reading!

How was your August? Did you find something wonderful to read that was set during the Edwardian Era? Or maybe you watched a movie – tell us about you read or watched!

I started the month planning to read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a book that has been popular for several years and now has a television series based on it on TNT. I tried to read it, I really did. But. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a strong believer that, if a book isn’t working for me, I abandon it. I know some people will stick with a book to the bitter end, disliking it the whole time, but there are too many titles on my “to read” list. So I dropped The Alienist and instead picked up The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Much better.

The Summer Before the War starts in June 1914 and is set in the idyllic English countryside. Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died, has come to Rye to be a Latin teacher. She soon becomes involved the lives of the people around her, learning about their secrets and dreams. When war is declared in late July, there is a burst of patriotic fervor and excitement with men and boys joining up to “advance their careers” and proclaiming that they’ll “be home by Christmas”. The reality of the war soon begins to creep into their lives, both on a national and personal level, and the old ways of thinking are slowly torn away.

I very much enjoyed this book. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking, but it is much more than a simple, quaint story. It was interesting to read about the very constricted lives women were allowed and how Beatrice had to fight for her job even though she was far more qualified than her (male) competition. I was also fascinated by how the strict codes of society dictated everyday life, such as who could dine with who, and how merely talking to someone considered disreputable could ruin your own standing. The war eats into these rules as death and pain impact everyone no matter your place.

Beatrice is a wonderful main character – witty, smart and confident in her abilities but struggling to make her way on her own in a world that scorns spinsters. She finds compassion from unexpected sources and strength from within to face a time when everything changed.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month and how did you like it?

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P. S. Duffy

cartographerFrom a village in Nova Scotia to the trenches of France The Cartographer of No Man’s Land leaps across the Atlantic, between a father at war and a son coming of age at home without him.

When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into the visceral shock of battle. Meanwhile, at home, his son Simon Peter must navigate escalating hostility in a fishing village torn by grief.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land offers a soulful portrayal of World War I and the lives that were forever changed by it, both on the battlefield and at home. (description from publisher)

Wounded by Emily Mayhew

woundedThe number of soldiers wounded in World War I is, in itself, devastating: over 21 million military wounded, and nearly 10 million killed. On the battlefield, the injuries were shocking, unlike anything those in the medical field had ever witnessed. The bullets hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles in with them. Soldier after soldier came in with the most dreaded kinds of casualty: awful, deep, ragged wounds to their heads, faces and abdomens. And yet the medical personnel faced with these unimaginable injuries adapted with amazing aptitude, thinking and reacting on their feet to save millions of lives.

In Wounded, Emily Mayhew tells the history of the Western Front from a new perspective: the medical network that arose seemingly overnight to help sick and injured soldiers. These men and women pulled injured troops from the hellscape of trench, shell crater, and no man’s land, transported them to the rear, and treated them for everything from foot rot to poison gas, venereal disease to traumatic amputation from exploding shells.

Drawing on hundreds of letters and diary entries, Mayhew allows readers to peer over the shoulder of the stretcher bearer who jumped into a trench and tried unsuccessfully to get a tightly packed line of soldiers out of the way, only to find that they were all dead. She takes us into dugouts where rescue teams awoke to dirt thrown on their faces by scores of terrified moles, digging frantically to escape the earth-shaking shellfire. Mayhew moves her account along the route followed by wounded men, from stretcher to aid station, from jolting ambulance to crowded operating tent, from railway station to the ship home, exploring actual cases of casualties who recorded their experiences. Both comprehensive and intimate, this groundbreaking book captures an often neglected aspect of the soldier’s world and a transformative moment in military and medical history. (description from publisher)