I’ve always wondered “what would I have done?” about both World War I and World War II. I like to think I’d have signed up and served in some sort of uniform. This story, then, was almost a personal fantasy of “What if?” for me.
The real Smith College Relief Unit (image source)
Based on the real-life group of Smith College graduates who served in France helping near or at the front lines, this fictionalized account of their lives focuses on Kate, a scholarship girl [why, oh why does every such person come from a “hardscrabble” existence?] and Emmie, the wealthy heiress, daughter of the formidable Mrs. Livingston Van Alden and her relative, Julia a doctor (and very Eleanor Roosevelt-ish in height, and teeth). 15 other Smithies, as they were known for their degrees from the prestigious Seven Sisters (women’s college version of the Ivy League back in single-sex days) arrive in France in new uniforms, filled with idealism, and then realize they must put their trucks together, sleep in cellars and, well, get on with the work to be done.
Of the generation who founded the Junior League and did good works in tenements and Settlement Houses in New York, Chicago, and other cities, these women really were trailblazers. They pretty much put social work on the map. Julia, a doctor who fought for her education to escape her privileged societal position, and Emmie who chafed at being Mrs. Van Alden’s daughter were typical of the society girls of their era who were “over it” as we’d say today and wanted “more.” Kate, tricked into coming by Emmie, has what today would be called “leadership” skills, but back then was just seen as a little bossy.
While the ladies work tirelessly helping the villagers reclaim their homes and lives stolen by the first battle of the Somme, the second battle is gearing up (but they don’t know that, of course). Helping with food, health care, education, entertainment, gardens, and livestock, the Smith Unit brings hope and practical assistance to the war-ravaged area. Each woman driving a truck or her accompanying Smith associates form bonds with the villagers, find a little romance, and learn things about their own strength that no modern-day corporate trust exercise or MBA program could hope to teach.
1916 Ford Jitney from Wikipedia Commons
I loved the ways Emmie and Kate mature and find their strengths. That was very well done. While I did roll my eyes at Julia’s pc moment, it too was appropriately told and dealt with in the manner of 1914 and not of today. I do not like it when historical fiction goes off into modern-day thought and happily, Willig is a much better author than that. I was also thrilled beyond measure that this was told in chronological order, with memories here and there, and not in the now-overused dual timeline and a cheesy “Oh, look Old Aunt Gerty’s scrapbook…if it could only talk…the tales it would tell…” storyline [is this a “trope”?]. Thank you, Ms. Willig, for skipping that garbage and telling us a great story instead. I wish actually hope there will be a sequel–I would love to hear about the rest of the fictional lives of Kate, Emmie, and Julia, but if not, I am glad to learn from the well-done author’s notes on the true story that a nonfiction book is in the works on the real Smith Unit. I will buy that the minute it is avaiable.
I loved the story, but there was one huge, annoying problem–the lack of an editor. Even a bestselling author needs one. The phrase “meant to” appeared on nearly every page of the book. It should have been the subtitle of the book. The phrase was ubiquitous! Never did she substitute “ought to” or “should have” or “are to be” or anything else. The first “ought to” finally came way into the book–I cheered. Then suddenly one chapter (a re-write, perhaps?) overused “ought to” before “meant to” returned. UGH UGH UGH! Spellcheck is not an editor. Someone should have called her out on this and made her fix it. The story is so good! The characters as deep as they get in this level of fiction, and the actions were believable, but the reader is bludgeoned to death with the words “meant to.” I’ve also never encountered a single America of any age (even back to my Grandmother born in 1904) “haring off” somewhere. Hares–rabbits just don’t “inform” or movements. That appears at least twice.
Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig