A Field Hospital in WWI

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The Winter Soldier     Daniel Mason     (2018) 

Gruesomeness alert: This novel is set in Europe during World War I, so you’re going to encounter dead horses, gangrenous limbs, and rats in the mud. But it’s well worth wading past the paragraphs of war trauma to read Daniel Mason’s novel about a young medical student working in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. And there’s only one actual battle scene, easy to skim over.  

Lucius Krzelewski (pronounced K-she-lev-ski) has had virtually no patient contact when he drops out of medical school in 1915 and leaves his wealthy Viennese family for a posting to a remote village in the eastern Carpathian Mountains. He’s eager to get experience with hands-on medicine, and the converted church with minimal equipment that is the first stop for war casualties shoves him right into surgery. Since all the other medical staff have fled or died of typhus, his mentor is Sister Margarete, a nun-nurse who guides him as gently as possible in treating the horrific wounds of early-20th-century warfare in primitive conditions. Lucius does his share of amputations, but he’s most interested in trying to help the soldiers who are mentally wounded, rendered paralyzed or mute or raging by the terrors of war. We’d call them victims of PTSD now, but in 1915, the WWI descriptor “shell shock” hadn’t even been fixed. These soldiers were assumed to be malingerers or cowards.  

When a local farmer brings Sergeant József Horváth to the church/hospital door in a wheelbarrow, Lucius is intrigued. Lucius’s medical curiosity—and a sincere desire to help Horváth—sets in motion a series of events destined to change the course of his life. Lucius and Sister Margarete are the main actors in this drama, but the supporting cast is large, and each individual is exquisitely portrayed, down to the people encountered by chance in railway cars.  

These characters manage to travel all around war-ravaged eastern Europe, by rail, by cart, or on foot, and Mason’s settings vividly evoke each stop. One example: “In the fields, high grass crowded out the maize and sunflowers. My God, thought Lucius as he stared into the green expanse, he had almost forgotten the land’s fecundity. Great heaps of flax and St. John’s wort rose on the roadside berms, and the road itself, a paisley of mud and tire tracks, was overgrown with brome. Ahead, the mountains rose before him in their grandeur, massive, like the rumpled repose of a stage curtain with its rich, brocaded pleats.” (287) 

Novelist Mason is a physician, specializing in psychiatry, so he writes with authority on the medical side: “It was a curse to be a doctor, to know anything! In this at least his patients were lucky, oblivious to the horrors that could happen. Now the possibilities seemed endless.” (153) Mason’s rich historical details also seem to be accurate. The result is a novel that hews to a grand tradition of war fiction, in which the shattering effects of war on human relationships are exposed in heartbreaking detail. In this, the novel has resonances with Anthony Doerr’s modern masterpiece set in World War II, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Readers who prefer more cryptic, avant garde novels may find The Winter Soldier too old fashioned. I’ll take old fashioned this time.

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.