Author Lauren Willig has stumbled onto a little-known historical episode from World War I (1914-18) and turned it into compelling fiction. Who knew that a group of Smith College graduates traveled to France during the height of the war to provide aid to suffering rural families? (Discovering these little interesting morsels of history is one of the reasons I love historical fiction!) Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
In the early 1900s, women who attending any college, let alone an elite one like Smith, were usually wealthy, privileged, and Protestant. Unless you happened to be one of the scholarship students, like Kate – a Catholic girl from a working class background who always feels like an outsider. Still, Kate and her Smith roommate, Essie find they seem to complement each other strengths and weaknesses. So, in 1917, when a controversial Smith professor organizes the Smith College Relief Unit, Essie makes sure Kate goes along.
Finding themselves serving several small towns in the French countryside, they initially work on feeding, housing, and schooling local families. But as the war reaches its climax, these women must face the kind of devastation, injury, and fatigue that was beyond what I could have imagined. Not one of the women was prepared for the discrimination, devastation, and demands they would face.
This personal test impacts each woman differently. And Willig’s extensive primary research (described in the Afterword) helped flesh out all her characters. Especially Kate, Essie, and Julia. They are fully multi-dimensional, with egos and foibles, but with a growing dedication to the work they are doing. There is also quite a bit of believable self-awareness that comes along with the work. And growing acceptance by others.
As a reader, I was hooked from the very beginning of this novel and only became more so as the book progressed toward a very suspenseful ending. This is a very powerful read about some very brave women whose story deserves to be told. And one that is likely to bolster your belief in the essential goodness of humans during difficult times.
More about author Lauren Willig.
You may be interested in my reviews of other historical novels by Lauren Willig: