NOTE: I received early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you netgalley and William Morrow. Publication Date: March 21, 2023.
This novel follows a strong, female protagonist as she pursues her life’s desire to become an archaeologist and, along the way, provides nursing support in both the Greco-Turkish War (1897) and the Spanish-American War (1898). Awarded three stars on Goodreads.
As you will read in the Historical Note at the end of the book, the heroine, Betsy Hayes, is a composite of two actual historical figures: Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945) and Janet Jennings (1842-1917). (Readers of other Willig books may recognize Harriet Boyd Hawes from BAND OF SISTERS.) Willig however has added her own fictional events to Hayes’ story.
A secondary (but interesting) character, Kit Carson, is a female journalist, struggling to cover “serious” stories in another industry with widespread gender discrimination. She too is patterned after two women, both of whom covered the Spanish-American war, Kathleen “Kit” Blake Watkins Coleman (1856-1915) and Katherine White. And there are a host of other soldier characters, most based on actual participants.
What I thought the book was best in providing was a picture of wartime medical care in the late 1800s and the reluctance of military officers to accept help from women nurses, no matter what the actual needs and conditions of the soldiers under their command. Remember much of the fighting takes place in tropical Cuba — before vaccines for measles and typhoid, before effective treatments for malaria and tuberculosis, and before antibiotics. It’s quite a grim picture!
Also included are the much forgotten stories of transport ships taking wounded soldiers home with inadequate supplies, food, and medical staff. If you want to know more, read about the Seneca, later investigated by the Dodge Commission which wound up criticizing the military.
In Willig’s Historical Note, she speaks to loads of research she did to write this novel and the many early sections she cut out. And that gets to the reason I assigned the book 3 stars. I don’t think she cut enough. I felt the book was trying to include too many aspects from this time period, particularly in the first half of the book. Theodore Roosevelt‘s (1858-1919) Rough Riders, Ivy League participation and rivalry, Clara Barton (1821-1912), President William McKinley (1843-1901), the Queen of Greece, archaeological study in Greece, and much more. All touched upon, but briefly. The result for me is that the story too often felt unfocused and rambling. The pacing DOES pick up in the second half of the novel. So perhaps 3.5 stars would be a more accurate rating.
In addition to the emphasis on discrimination against skilled women eager to help, I found Willig’s anti-war message a bit heavy-handed. Especially toward the end. Agreed, there is often a childlike eagerness in men who enlist, expecting great adventure, glory, even fame. But it’s a point that that could have been made with greater subtlety.
This is also another novel that uses that popular, dual-timeframe construction (already a cliche in my opinion!). The time frames are two years apart and I do NOT see what that structure added.
Having read other historical fiction by Willig, I remain a fan. I just don’t think this is her best.
More about author Lauren Willig.
You may be interested in my reviews of other books by Willig: