Band of Sisters
I love heroines who display spirit, backbone and intelligence with ease and elegance. We’re given several such extraordinary women in Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters and I found myself completely enthralled by the story as a result.
Kate Moran had attended Smith College, the women’s university favored by some of America’s wealthiest families, on a scholarship. She thought she was fully accepted into her classmate’s social circle, especially by best friend Emmaline (Emmie) Van Alden, but during a graduation celebration she overhears a disparaging remark made by Emmie’s cousin, and is angered and embarrassed enough to determine to never again have anything to do with the Smith ladies.
Kate becomes a French teacher at an elite private school and while she’s not exactly happy in the job, she is pleased it enables her to be independent from a difficult family situation. Emmie writes to her over the years but Kate never responds. Her sense that the wealthy socialites of Smith, especially Emmie, see her as nothing more than a charity case who is far from their equal stings her pride and she sees no reason to continue any relationship where she’s seen as somehow ‘less’. Emmie is persistent however, especially when it comes to having Kate join the new Smith College Relief Unit, a group of alumni who plan to enter war-torn towns and villages in France where the German invaders have recently vacated the field in order to aid the French in their rebuilding efforts. Kate, fluent in French and a licensed driver to boot, would be a huge asset to the team. Kate’s initial reluctance slowly erodes under Emmie’s cheerful, relentless begging and she soon finds herself joining Emmie and a host of other “Smithies” as they set sail for France.
It’s a harrowing journey, with the ladies having to sleep on the deck – often in less than ideal conditions – with the threat of being torpedoed constantly hovering over them. Once they arrive in Paris, matters don’t improve. The hotel where they planned to stay doesn’t have enough rooms for them, their supplies are nowhere to be found, the truck Kate is meant to drive arrived in a box and has to be built by their team… the list of setbacks is endless. While Kate, Emmie and many of the other girls determine to persevere, a shrewish debutante named Maude tries to derail their goal of reaching outlying villages in desperate need of reconstruction in favor of serving donuts and coffee to American soldiers at a Parisian canteen. Once that mutiny is successfully quelled, they head to the countryside only to find that the chateau that was to be their headquarters has been all but demolished, and the local citizenry, made up primarily of women and children, are living in damp cellars. Their crops, plows, planting supplies, homes, clothes, schools, wells – all were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated.
With their supplies in disarray and no decent place in which to make a base, everyone – the locals, the French government, the allied armies – expects the wealthy do-gooders to go home. Or at least back to Paris. Emmie, Kate and company prove wise, resilient and tenacious, however. They persevere against tremendous odds, bringing some much needed aid to devastated communities – and building lasting bonds that transcend mere friendship, binding them into a band of sisters.
This is billed as a historical novel rather than women’s fiction and I would agree with that label. The story takes a deep dive into what happened to the real Smith College Relief Unit, covering not just their day-to-day tasks of reconstruction but the harrowing moments of German bombing, a run in with deserters that nearly results in rape, battling snow and the horrific mud of the region in their efforts to get food, medicine and school supplies to the villagers, outrunning advancing enemy troops – their adventures are legion. We also hear of the more mundane difficulties – the endless hunt for supplies, not being able to take a bath, finding themselves hosting allied soldiers, truck breakdowns, livestock that doesn’t cooperate, Maude’s incessant schemes to get them back to Paris… pretty much anything that can go wrong does go wrong. A lot of the narrative emphasis is on the historic events and the author does an incredible job of making the experiences of our heroines vivid and vibrant and grittily realistic.
The emotional aspect seems almost secondary to the story. It is there, though and it adds a nice psychological tension to the tale. Kate, Emmie, and Emmie’s cousin Julia are our primary heroines and there is some bitter history between them; the remark which had so irritated Kate at the graduation celebration had been made by Julia. She starts the tale as the villain, a snobby rich girl determined to keep the Brooklyn scholarship girl, Kate, in her place. But we slowly come to realize there is a lot more going on beneath the surface, and the full story is far more interesting than we had initially been led to believe. Additionally, there are so many miscommunications between Emmie and Kate that their friendship is in constant danger of implosion. It takes much of the book for them to reach a resolution that allows both to realize how important their relationship is to each of them.
Naturally, all three of our protagonists grow and learn throughout this ordeal. Kate slowly comes to acknowledge that while not everyone will judge her strictly on her own merits, most people actually do place more stock on what she accomplishes than they do on where she comes from. That resolution helps her to see her family situation in a new light and to value the women around her who may come from a different class but have the same devotion to hard work and charity that she does. Julia sees standing on her own feet and trusting no one as being her sole shot at surviving the difficult situation she finds herself in, but she learns the merit of trust and friendship as the story progresses. And Emmie – Emmie has no self-worth. Various members of her family have told her she’s not attractive, that she’s flighty and incompetent and incapable of pretty much anything. None of that is true and being in France, accomplishing all that she does and meeting her very own hero helps her to gain confidence.
Emmie’s is the only romance we get in the book and while it is utterly, completely, delightfully charming it is – sadly – brief. If I were to add up all the pages when Emmie and her hero are together I doubt it would make for 10% of this rather long book, which is a shame because the two of them are a fantastic couple – their shared humor, inside jokes, silly asides and warm conversations always brought a smile to my face.
The book’s only (minor!) flaw is that it is long and the plentiful minutiae can at moments be rather tedious.
That said, Band of Sisters is a richly detailed historical novel which gives a uniquely feminine perspective to WWI history. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read about strong, amazing women overcoming adverse circumstances.