A group of young women from Smith College risk their lives in France at the height of World War I in this sweeping novel based on a true story—a skillful blend of Call the Midwife and The Alice Network—from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig.
A scholarship girl from Brooklyn, Kate Moran thought she found a place among Smith’s Mayflower descendants, only to have her illusions dashed the summer after graduation. When charismatic alumna Betsy Rutherford delivers a rousing speech at the Smith College Club in April of 1917, looking for volunteers to help French civilians decimated by the German war machine, Kate is too busy earning her living to even think of taking up the call. But when her former best friend Emmeline Van Alden reaches out and begs her to take the place of a girl who had to drop out, Kate reluctantly agrees to join the new Smith College Relief Unit.
Four months later, Kate and seventeen other Smithies, including two trailblazing female doctors, set sail for France. The volunteers are armed with money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray. The chateau that was to be their headquarters is a half-burnt ruin. The villagers they meet are in desperate straits: women and children huddling in damp cellars, their crops destroyed and their wells poisoned.
Despite constant shelling from the Germans, French bureaucracy, and the threat of being ousted by the British army, the Smith volunteers bring welcome aid—and hope—to the region. But can they survive their own differences? As they cope with the hardships and terrors of the war, Kate and her colleagues find themselves navigating old rivalries and new betrayals which threaten the very existence of the Unit.
With the Germans threatening to break through the lines, can the Smith Unit pull together and be truly a band of sisters?
I had no idea what I would find in this book. I just bought it because it was historical fiction (what I was in the mood for) and it was narrated by my favorite narrator: Julia Whelan.
What I found was a perfect balance between character and social study, sprinkled with interesting facts about the conditions of France villagers during WWI.
Why character study?
Because we are following several main characters, two mainly Kate and Emmeline with a lot of side characters who will have a huge personal growth throughout the story!
Both women are childhood friends but come from vastly different background. Emmeline is from a very wealthy and political family whereas Kate’s family is bordering on being poor.
Emmeline wears her heart on her sleeve and is the kind of woman that would give the coat on her back and all her provisions to someone in need.
And Kate, after hearing some hurtful words from Emmeline’s cousin the beautiful Julia, has secretly felt like a charity case for years now, hence cutting all ties with Emmeline after they went through Smith college together.
There is a lot to unpack there as Emmeline never understood why Kate never replied to her many letters. And throughout the story they will stumble the meanders of a hurt friendship, trying to find their way back to being the friend each deserves.
I had no knowledge of Smith college’s women departing America to help French civilians who had been hit so hard by WWI ! And that’s what I adore finding in historical books: unknown stories within the big story.
Imagine when these women left America by boat, the war was still going on and, the doctors aside, none of them had any proper training or idea what they would find in the French countryside.
When they arrive, nothing was as promised.
Their first night in Paris had to be strong-armed by Kate as the hotel was not booked for so many women.
Then the chateau they were meant to reside in was just ruins and they had to live in barracks.
Everything was needed! These poor people had no beds, no books, no food, nothing.
And so, the Smith women day after day of grueling work will help give all these villagers a decent life again. If Kate was the vice director of their unit, efficient, tirelessly working, Emmeline was the glue to that group of women and the one who really understood the project.
Never stopping to hassle French officials, the Red Cross, the British army, the determination and generosity of that group of women will slowly change things for the better.
Their biggest ordeal would be to learn working together! Cue some petty moves from some of them, some always bickering etc. The key to their success will be to trust each other.
But in the end, they will be a band of sisters.
I think the author did an amazing job in fleshing out these characters, in making them suffer, ponder, make mistakes and amend for said mistakes.
Lauren Willig also wrote a very vivid depiction of what life was in the French countryside while WWI was still at play. With the poilus and the always well-groomed and formal British officers and soldiers. With the bare necessity missing. With children born at the beginning of the war and who learned, even at a very young age, to not make a noise for fear of alerting the enemy.
Every character in that story was interesting and very distinct from the other, not because the author told us but because she showed us. I honestly truly cared for (most of)these women and could not stop listening, needing to know what would happen and how they would grow.
This is an excellent historical fiction and if you love audiobooks, go for it as Julia Whelan did, once again, a stellar job narrating that story.
Thanks for reading!