I’ve made no secret on this blog that I enjoy Lauren Willig’s writing. Whether it’s the fabulous eighteenth-century romp of her Pink Carnation novels, with their sly invocations of the works of Georgette Heyer (a long-time favorite of mine) as well as the more explicit references to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, or stand-alones like The Summer Country, with its evocation of plantation slavery and its discontents in nineteenth-century Barbados, her books are a joy to read.
Even so, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Band of Sisters, about the well-intentioned but challenging effort by a group of Seven Sisters alumnae to undo the damage wrought by the German invasion of northeastern France in World War I. Known as the Smith College Relief Unit, the real-life counterparts of Willig’s characters shipped across the Atlantic in 1917 and for the next two years fought everything from bureaucracy to gasoline shortages and shifting front lines to complete their mission: the restoration of French villages.
But again Willig takes this potentially grim story and finds a way to make it a page-turner. Over the course of the book, each woman in the unit—starting with its organizer, Mrs. Rutherford—emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. But as we discuss in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the focus of the story is three interconnected members of the band: Kate Moran, an impoverished and reluctant teacher of French at a New York girls’ school; her college friend and roommate Emmie van Alden, burdened with the legacy of an exalted family heritage and a crusading but inattentive mother; and Emmie’s cousin Julia, a doctor whose self-confident and beautiful exterior hides a past she hesitates to share and a drive to succeed in her chosen profession that her family and even her medical colleagues do not support. Read on—and listen!—to find out more.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Kate Moran, a graduate of Smith College, has been making her living tutoring students in French when her college friend Emmie Van Alden appears out of the blue and talks Kate into joining a group of alumnae intent on offering relief to rural families in war-torn France. Despite her mother’s disapproval, in July 1917 Kate boards an ocean liner with the Smith College Relief Unit. She knows few of the other alumnae and dislikes some of those she remembers from her college days. Even her friendship with Emmie has been tarnished since graduation by their disparate family backgrounds.
After a dangerous journey across the Atlantic, where German U-boats still patrol the seas, the Smith women reach Paris. There they encounter one obstacle after another: incomplete paperwork, missing supplies, trucks delivered in pieces, absent members of their unit, and a simmering coup against their leader. Somehow they overcome their difficulties and reach their intended destination in Picardy, not far from the River Somme. But no sooner have they begun to make headway in their central mission—to restore farmlands and villages destroyed during the German invasion—than they hear of a renewed offensive that may undo all their hard work.
In Band of Sisters (William Morrow, 2021) Lauren Willig brings to life, with her signature flair, a little-known but riveting chapter in the history of World War I.
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