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Book Review: Band of Sisters

band of sisters review
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Arlen Hollis KaneReviewed by Arlen Kane, Manhattan-based award winning writer

 

 

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Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

The women of Smith College go to war

Band of Sisters reads like an implausible war adventure where we meet a group of well-bred young women who spout the Classics, and whose nannies and cooks coddle them. They volunteer to go to France while WWI rages on.  But, the astonishment of it is that the story is true.

It’s a fascinating story purely told.  The author draws well the daily tribulations facing the diverse personalities laboring under unimaginable circumstances.  The women, some of whom arrive in wartime Paris adorned in fashionable hats, planning to shop in Paris, wind up in a small village decimated by the Germans.  Here they find sick, starving, orphaned and widowed villagers, with no real shelters left.

It’s a fascinating story purely told.  The author draws well the daily tribulations facing the diverse personalities laboring under unimaginable circumstances.  The women, some of whom arrive in wartime Paris adorned in fashionable hats, planning to shop in Paris, wind up in a small village decimated by the Germans.  Here they find sick, starving, orphaned and widowed villagers, with no real shelters left.

The Smith College Relief Unit

Named the Smith College Relief Unit, the women get to work. The bumble through mishaps like buying French hens that refuse to lay eggs, only to discover the recalcitrant layers are roosters.  They have financial resources to buy supplies from donors back home, but it’s how the young women haul heavy equipment through muddy terrain, and how they manage to feed the war-torn of fifteen local villages that astonishes the reader.

The most important relationship is between two cousins and the college roommate of one of them.  When we meet them in 1917, individually they are shaped by poverty, ancestry, and rape.  War makes them strange bedfellows, and the threat of death makes them honest, allowing resentments to fall away and deep bonds to form.

The women of Smith

What keeps the book from being a timeline of events, albeit an exciting one, are the women and their shared history back at Smith.   While the personalities differ, I wish the author offered more detail to distinguish each of the dozen-ish characters that populate the main story.  There are a few unmistakable dominant characters, but at times it was necessary for this reader to stop and reference who is who when others are named or quoted.

The most important relationship is between two cousins and the college roommate of one of them.  When we meet them in 1917, individually they are shaped by poverty, ancestry, and rape.  War makes them strange bedfellows, and the threat of death makes them honest, allowing resentments to fall away and deep bonds to form.

Though the author provides less detail about other characters, we can easily understand all they achieved for these villagers, and for themselves.  Few women knew how to drive in 1917, but the Smithies assemble their own trucks, shipped to them in pieces.  As a result, Alice discovers her knack for mechanics.  Conniving, uppity Maud is shaken to discover a Catholic among her fellow Smithies, but peddles soap and thread to ragged villagers.

A trip to France well taken

In her historical notes at the end of the book, Willig describes how she stumbled upon the Smith College Relief Unit while researching something else. She details what’s true – mostly everything – and what she invented – a romance, for one.

With so many of the events and characters pulled from accounts, the book could be a much drier read.  However, Willig easily gives us the fear, despair, frustration, anger, dedication and love that hovered about in those French villages only a few miles from the front. 

Band of Sisters is a trip to France well taken.

 


About the author, Lauren Willig

band of sisters review

Lauren Willig is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty works of historical fiction, including The Summer Country, the RITA Award winning Pink Carnation series, and three novels co-written with Beatriz Williams and Karen White. An alumna of Yale University, she has a graduate degree in history from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City with her husband, two young children, and vast quantities of coffee.

 

 

 

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