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Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Title: Band of Sisters

AuthorLauren Willig

Year Published: 2021

Category: Adult historical fiction
Pages: 528
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map)USA (MA) and France

Summary (from Amazon): A scholarship girl from Brooklyn, Kate Moran thought she found a place among Smith’s Mayflower descendants, only to have her illusions dashed the summer after graduation. When charismatic alumna Betsy Rutherford delivers a rousing speech at the Smith College Club in April of 1917, looking for volunteers to help French civilians decimated by the German war machine, Kate is too busy earning her living to even think of taking up the call. But when her former best friend Emmeline Van Alden reaches out and begs her to take the place of a girl who had to drop out, Kate reluctantly agrees to join the new Smith College Relief Unit.

Four months later, Kate and seventeen other Smithies, including two trailblazing female doctors, set sail for France. The volunteers are armed with money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray. The chateau that was to be their headquarters is a half-burnt ruin. The villagers they meet are in desperate straits: women and children huddling in damp cellars, their crops destroyed and their wells poisoned. 

Despite constant shelling from the Germans, French bureaucracy, and the threat of being ousted by the British army, the Smith volunteers bring welcome aid—and hope—to the region. But can they survive their own differences? As they cope with the hardships and terrors of the war, Kate and her colleagues find themselves navigating old rivalries and new betrayals which threaten the very existence of the Unit.

With the Germans threatening to break through the lines, can the Smith Unit pull together and be truly a band of sisters?

Review: I have seen only a couple reviews of this book, but when I heard it was about Smith College women and based on true events, I was in. One of my best friends is a Smith graduate and another good friend is currently a professor there so I feel a connection. And, it's World War I!

This book is historically interesting as it shows a side of World War I that I hadn't read about before: the efforts of American civilians. And, in particular, one group of Smith College women who worked with villagers, mostly children, and ended up helping to evacuate an entire area of France in 1918 as the Germans were advancing west. What I especially like is that it isn't your typical "war" novel. Yes, there are soldiers, information about how the war is progressing, and some detailed descriptions of wounds, both psychological and physical, but more than that, it's a cultural look at the war and this particular group of women.

Each chapter begins with part of a letter that one of the characters has written home. Through the letters the reader gets a better sense of their activities and how they are all feeling about what they are doing and how the women's relationships are evolving as time goes on. Turns out, the letters are real; I was so happy to learn that in the detailed After Word! The author did extensive research using the letters and diaries of the real Smith women who served in the unit and almost all the events, big and small, really happened. You all probably know how happy that makes me.

528 pages. It could have done with about 100 fewer in my mind. There's lots of detail, which bogged me down a bit (hence the rating of 4 and not 4.5). However, if you enjoy historical fiction, you'll enjoy this novel.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Historical fiction--numerous events from 1500s to 1990s
  • Literary Escapes--Massachusetts 

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