Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig is a fictionalized account of real-life events in which a group of Smith College graduates traveled to France during WWI to help the citizens who had been bombed out of their homes and were starving, lacking medical care, and often living in cellars of damaged buildings or barns.
Kate Moran, a former scholarship girl from Brooklyn, is working a job she doesn't really like when her wealthy best friend from college, Emmeline Van Alden asks her to join the Smith College Relief Unit after another member dropped out. They will be going to France to help displaced and starving citizens, mostly women and children. Kate agrees for the change of pace but after being stung by the words of Emmie's cousin, many years back, she isn't sure she is interested in resuming her friendship with Emmie.
Along with 15 other Smith grads, Kate and Emmie travel across the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in Paris to find that the proprietor of the place they planned to stay doesn't have enough rooms and some of their supplies have either gone missing or are stuck with nobody available to fetch them. Only a few of the women can drive and there are many complications but eventually they make it to a bombed-out village and set up to help the citizens get back on their feet. They are not far from the front line, relatively speaking, but they're able to set up their own lodgings and a store and provide for the villagers' medical needs and slowly branch out to aid those in the surrounding area. But, will the war stay far enough away from them or will the Germans break through and endanger the women and everything they've accomplished?
Recommended - Excellent WWI fiction based on real events. Because the author stuck closely to the real-life events, much of Band of Sisters is about the friendships and backbiting, the difficulties acquiring supplies and dealing with automobile disasters, the dangers that single women face driving around the countryside, the touches of romance, and how the women overcome obstacles big and small. It's slow of pace in the first half to three-quarters but I was actually quite gripped by the everyday challenges the women faced and imagining how I would handle them if I'd been among them, wondering whether I would stick it out or run wailing back to the US in defeat. In the latter part of the book, it becomes fairly nail-biting and I particularly loved that bit.
I really appreciated the fact (made clear in the author's note) that she fictionalized the characters but chose to use actual events within her work of fiction rather than making things up. As a result of that choice, there's an everyday feel to most of the book but I prefer accuracy of events, even if that means a book is a bit less action-packed. Even before I read the author's note, the Smithies' challenges seemed very realistic to me. Read Band of Sisters when you're in the mood to dip your toes into a unique view of WWI history and don't mind a quieter, slower-paced read (at least till near the end).
I received a review copy of Band of Sisters from HarperCollins (many thanks!) in exchange for an honest review and have posed my copy on a news periodical from 1919. It's not in great shape and the pages have to be turned carefully or they'll crumble. The photos are amazing, though. I chose the spread above because the Smith women encountered ruins everywhere they went, although the photo above was taken in Belgium. Here's another photo that shows a Red Cross relief worker from Great Britain. The Red Cross is mentioned but as I recall the women worked with either the American or French Red Cross. You should be able to click on both images to enlarge them.
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