Smithies at War.

Book Review for “Band of Sisters” by Lauren Willig.

Summary: “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. … 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?

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, France, WWI; Other Categories: Novel, (semi) Biographical.

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Apparently, the two world wars still have some areas and events that we know little about. This is why we need historical fiction writers to delve into them and turn them into something alive and breathing. This is certainly one of these novels, where we can be glad that Willig went down the rabbit hole of this group of women from Smith College who went into France to assist in the war effort. Apparently, a group of 18 Smith College alums went to help war-torn villages try to rebuild after the German invasions – all while the war still raged only a few miles away. Talk about your unknown profiles in courage! What’s more, Willig actually based almost all of the characters on the real Smith women of the unit! The exceptions are her two main protagonists Kate, and Emmie. In addition, according to the author’s notes, practically all of the events described here actually happened to this unit. That’s both impressive and pretty scary, since the unit went through some harrowing times.

There’s that old saying “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Well, apparently this is the philosophy upon which this unit was founded, and these Smithies’ jobs were to help the villages and towns in this area of France, get back on their feet, while retaining their pride. I totally appreciated this (and my years of working in the non-profit sector focused on just this type of work). Yes, of course, spies and nurses helping the troops in battle were all very important in both World Wars. But there must be millions of stories about civilians caught between the warring forces, and we hardly ever hear about any of them. That’s why I’m thrilled that Willig brought their story to our attention with this novel. And as harrowing as some of these events sound, I actually found this novel to be refreshingly different. This is one of the reasons why this book will be getting high marks from me.

Another reason is how touchingly interesting Willig makes her main protagonists. Here are two women of very different backgrounds who came together at college and then end up together in a situation of both adversity and charity. Their relationship is as complex as the logistics required to pull off such an ambitious scheme. In fact, I found that the many obstacles that they encounter in their mission somewhat paralleled the hurdles that these two had to face in their personal associations, both between themselves and with the other members of their unit. Its almost as if Willig worked out a coming-of-age story for these two women, as well as a coming-of-age story for the Smith unit as a whole. Obviously, not all the women were stellar individuals, and thankfully, Willig doesn’t hold back with them – we get to see them, warts, and all. I also particularly enjoyed Willig’s use of letters from these women written to their families back home, which she employed to introduce each chapter. (By the way, Willig gives a little nod to some of her author friends by giving them tiny cameo roles in this novel, which I thought was rather sweet.)

If there’s one drawback that I found with this book it was that it wasn’t always clear which story was being told, because both Kate’s and Emmie’s parts were told in third person. While I know that people are getting tired of multiple points of view in novels, I’m wondering if Willig should have employed that mechanic with this book. I also know that not everyone likes first person novels, but I believe if done right, they bring the reader closer to the characters. When we’re in their heads, we get to know them just that much better. Plus, if there’s more than one major protagonist, switching voices can keep each of their stories distinctive. That said, I don’t think this detracted all that much from the overall impact of this book, and I found myself racing through its (not so brief) 528 pages as if it was a short story or novella. This is why I’m warmly recommending this novel and I think it deserves at least four and a half stars out of five (but I reserve the right to revise this rating upwards, at a later date).

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30483411-0-Edelweiss-Reviewer-BWilliam Morrow – Harper Collins released “Band of Sisters” by Lauren Willig on March 2, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.

This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#7), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#9).

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