Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

November 10, 2021

Author Lauren Willig, who is probably best known for her Pink Carnation series of Napoleonic-era spy novels, has written a wonderfully detailed novel about female friendship during World War I in Band of Sisters.  The novel tells the story of the Smith College Relief Unit, a group of Smith graduates who went to France in 1917 to bring aid to French villagers whose lives had been devastated by the German invasion.  The Unit really existed, and most of the scenes in the novel are based on actual events, but Willig’s characters are fictional.  Some are thinly-disguised versions of real members of the Unit, as Willig details in her author’s note, while others, including the two heroines, are entirely fictional, even though there were real people who inspired them.

The members of the Smith College Relief Unit, in Willig’s novel as in real life, had various reasons for going to France in wartime.  Some of Willig’s characters have a genuine desire to help the villagers, in any way they can.  Some are looking for adventure, or to escape what they see as their boring lives.  One character in the novel wants to go to Paris to shop for her bridal trousseau.  Some are more reluctant than others, and need some convincing by their friends.  This is true of Kate Moran, one of the heroines of the novel.  Whatever their motives for going, a speech by the leader of the group, archaeologist Betsy Rutherford, inspires them, and by the time they arrive in France, they feel more enthusiastic about their work.  Mrs. Rutherford is a charismatic leader, who reminds me of one of my favorite fictional characters, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody.  Willig makes that comparison early in the book.  The group includes two pioneering female doctors, also inspired by real people.

When the women arrive in Paris, they face many obstacles.  There is no room for them at the hotel, but Kate persuades the innkeeper to let them use the attic.  Then they have several run-ins with French bureaucrats before they can get the supplies they need, as well as passes to enter the war zone.  The women have to assemble their own trucks and set up barracks on the grounds of a ruined castle in the area where they will be working.  Most of them are from a privileged background and are not used to doing this kind of work, but they adapt to the circumstances.  At least, most of them do.  One young woman faints during a visit to a hospital while observing reconstructive surgery on soldiers whose faces were badly damaged and, later, when she sees the devastation in a village, and she ends up leaving the unit.  A coup within the unit leads to Mrs. Rutherford’s stepping down as leader and her leaving the group, to be replaced by Dr. Stringfellow, one of the doctors.  Some of the women don’t like her style of leadership and disagree with her about the purposes of the unit.  I loved Mrs. Rutherford’s character, and was sorry to see her go, but she does reappear in a very important scene near the end of the book.  Much to her surprise, Kate is appointed assistant director.  Because Dr. Stringfellow’s medical duties come first, Kate does most of the actual leading.

Kate is a scholarship student, from a poor Irish family in Brooklyn, and has an inferiority complex because she doesn’t come from the same privileged background as the other women.  The other heroine, Emmie Van Alden, is Kate’s best friend and roommate from Smith.  She comes from a wealthy New York family, with a mansion on Fifth Avenue, and her mother is a prominent suffragist.  Emmie and her mother worked in a settlement house before the war, and charitable work has become second nature to her.  As it turns out, Emmie has an inferiority complex of her own because people are always comparing her to her mother, and she is afraid she will never be able to live up to her mother’s reputation.  After graduating from Smith, Kate has been working as a French teacher in a private girls’ school in Boston, and is bored with her life.  Although she is reluctant to go to France, Emmie convinces her when another woman is unable to go.  The third important character is Emmie’s cousin Julia, the younger of the two doctors.  At first Julia seems rather unsympathetic, but, as the reader gets to know more about her and her background, we come to sympathize with her.  While in medical school, Julia was sexually assaulted by a fellow student and, to her horror, her assailant shows up as a doctor in a hospital in the area where the women are working.  Everyone thinks this young doctor is so nice, and so willing to help them.  Only Julia knows the truth about him.

As we discover early on, there are tensions beneath the surface of Kate’s and Emmie’s friendship, which go back to a visit Kate made to Emmie’s family the summer after graduation.  Emmie had made Kate feel she really belonged at Smith, and Kate had joined the literary and dramatic societies, which she never would have done on her own.  And so, by the time they graduate, Kate feels like she truly is a part of Emmie’s world, until she hears Julia call her one of Emmie’s charity cases.  Kate, of course, is mortified, and the blow to her pride leads her to distance herself from Emmie.  Emmie never heard the remark, and she is hurt, and wonders what she had done, when Kate stops writing to her.

When the two women go to France together, the wounds in their friendship seem to be healed, but a new incident threatens to stretch their friendship past the breaking point.  As assistant director, Kate is responsible for the unit’s finances, and as she goes over the accounts, she discovers that Emmie is paying her way.  Before they left, Emmie had told her there was a fund set up by Smith graduates to pay the women’s expenses in France, but it turns out the fund never existed and all the women are paying their own way, except Kate.  Once again, Kate’s pride is wounded, and the two heroines have a major falling out, until subsequent events draw them closer again.  Willig handles this incident very well.  Throughout the book, the chapters alternate between Kate’s and Emmie’s points of view.  In Kate’s chapters, you can see how hurt she feels, while in Emmie’s chapters, you see she is mystified by Kate’s reaction.  She thought she was doing good for her friend and didn’t realize how Kate would react.

Willig writes about the work the women do in great detail, as they help the devastated villagers rebuild their lives.  There are heartbreaking scenes of children living on dirt floors or in the cellars of ruined houses, after suffering the loss of their family members.  The traumatized children have forgotten how to play.  The women organize games for them and build schoolhouses, with many of the women teaching classes.  One little girl, who has seen her brother killed by a bomb, attaches herself to Kate, but avoids Emmie, because, when Emmie, in all innocence, threw a ball to her, the girl mistook it for a bomb.  All the children, except this one girl, love Emmie, who has a warm heart and a way with children.  Kate, by contrast, is more practical and turns out to be a natural leader.  Together, the women of the unit help the villagers rebuild their houses, plant crops, and raise farm animals.  They set up a store where the villagers can buy food and supplies at a low cost, because giving things away would make the villagers think they were accepting charity, and they don’t want to hurt the people’s pride.  Throughout their time in France, the women sleep in barracks while listening to the sound of artillery.  Willig gives us unforgettable descriptions of the unit’s trucks getting stuck in mud and rain while the women make their visits to the villages.  There is a sense of danger that runs throughout the novel, as the German army moves closer.  This shared danger leads the women to form bonds with each other, in spite of the differences in their personalities and interests.

There are some moments of humor to counteract the scenes of devastation.  When the women first arrive in the war zone, Emmie accidentally buys roosters instead of hens, and no one knows why the chickens haven’t laid any eggs.  It is only when the group’s agriculturalist arrives that they have their explanation.  Emmie finds love with a British officer masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel.  (Readers of Willig’s Pink Carnation series will know that she loves the Scarlet Pimpernel books, and the series is based on the Scarlet Pimpernel being a real person.)  We don’t learn the officer’s real name until relatively late in the book.  I will not say what it is, but all I will say is that Jane Austen fans will be pleased.  As the German army comes closer to the area, in March 1918, Emmie knows the man she loves will be sent back to the front, and we do not know until the end of the book whether Emmie’s love is doomed to tragedy or not.

The advance of the German army threatens to destroy all the good work the women have done.  They help the villagers to evacuate the homes that they have just rebuilt.  This leads to a breathtaking climax of the book, as the heroines make repeated trips back and forth into the war zone, as the fighting gets closer and closer.  You genuinely fear for their lives and hope everyone will survive.

Willig has written an excellent historical novel about a little-known aspect of World War I.  She accidentally discovered the Smith College Relief Unit while working on something else, and she has done an amazing job researching the real-life women behind her fictional characters.  Each chapter begins with an actual letter from a member of the unit.  More material, including letters, maps, and photographs, are available on her website.  Willig’s characters, although fictional, seem like real people and, as I said, most of them are based on actual members of the unit.  Willig does not avoid the less pleasant aspects of some of their characters.  When it is discovered that Kate is Catholic, she faces prejudices from the other members of the group, and only Emmie and Julia (whose mother is married to a French count) come to her support.  This anti-Catholic bias actually existed in the group.  The two heroines, Kate and Emmie, with their contrasting personalities, are both very strong and sympathetic characters.  I highly recommend Band of Sisters for anyone who loves historical fiction.

Band of Sisters is available from the offsite shelving and can be requested for contactless pickup.