Based on actual events during WWI, a group of Smith College alumnae formed the Smith College Relief Unit and traveled to northern France to assist in civilian relief work in 1917. They traveled around delivering supplies, providing medical aid and educating school children in decimated villages. Since she can speak French and drive, Kate Moran, a scholarship student, gets recruited by her friend Emmie Van Alden. Kate leaves her job as a teacher and joins 17 other Smith women, including two doctors.
“Debutante nonsense, her mother called it. Good enough for those who didn’t have to worry about getting their living.
But this was work too. She might not be paid for it, not exactly, but the Unit was covering her room and board, and how else was she ever to see France, even France at war?”
Emmie Van Alden comes from a wealthy family and doesn’t need to earn a living. The unit’s mostly composed of privileged women. They could’ve stayed safe in the United States but they chose to help with war efforts and that’s to be commended. The unit leader, Mrs. Rutherford, provides some statistics: “In the little over a week that we’ve been here, Miss Van Alden alone has already made fifty-one calls on forty-two families.” She also noted that the medical department had seen nearly three hundred patients.
Throughout the novel, Kate struggles with confidence, belonging and feeling like an outsider. She even overhears another woman commenting that she didn’t know that there were any Catholics at Smith. However, she’s extremely focused and efficient and even becomes the assistant director of the unit for a while. However, when Kate finds out that Emmie’s family is paying her room and board, it draws another rift in their tenuous relationship. Later she finds out that Emmie’s cousin, Julia, one of the doctors on the excursion, comes from a poor family as well. To Emmie’s dismay, Julia and Kate become close, making Emmie feel like the odd one out. There’s a lot going on in this novel.
“She’d thought they’d been happy at Smith. It had seemed to work then. Emmie provided all the affection and Kate provided the practical skills, and between them, they balanced out rather nicely.”
The unit faces more challenges than anticipated once they reach their post in Grecourt. There’s constant shelling from the Germans, threats to be ousted by the British army and French bureaucracy. Villagers suffer from pneumonia, measles, tetanus, syphilis. One night, Kate and Emmie run out of gas and get lost in a snowstorm and are nearly sexually assaulted by some soldiers. The women in the unit prevail despite undermining, mistreatment and discouragement by men. There’s some romance mixed in, too. There aren’t that many women around France at this time and men come for dinner parties every week. Emmie flirts and falls in love with British Captain Will DeWitt (of the DeWitt biscuits!). He tells her that he’ll propose to her after the war ends.
I’d not heard of the Smith College Relief Unit before discovering this book. I’m a women’s college graduate (Simmons College ‘91) so this particularly appealed to me. Author Lauren Willig completed meticulous research straight from the source at Smith College Special Collections. She pored over letters, journals, reports and photos. There are still so many stories one can cull from historical documents. It’s fascinating. I’ve not read a lot of books based in WWI so I appreciated that as well. This is why I love to read historical fiction. I learn about events I didn’t know that much about and am transported to different times and historical moments in a creative, accesible and memorable manner. While the book dragged a little bit at times and might have been too long, I overall enjoyed reading about these brave, determined women. They must have been forever bonded by their remarkable experience during WWI.
Band of Sisters is the perfect novel to read during Women’s History Month.