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.

Historical Fiction: 3 Reviews

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and the 1945 Atomic Bomb: what a trio of topics for historical fiction! Each of these three novels has some flaws, which I note below, but each kept my attention to the end.

The Revolution of Marina M.     Janet Fitch     (2017)

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Marina Marakova starts her first-person bildungsroman with a brief prologue set in California in 1932, so we know that she survives the Russian Revolution. The rest of this mammoth novel is set in Russia, 1916-1919, with the aristocratic Marina prescient from early on: “How precious all this was, how soon it might be gone. It only made it more poignant and beautiful in my eyes.” (183) Marina experiences a sexual awakening against the gruesome backdrop of (a) World War I grinding on its bloody way, (b) the czarist regime toppling, and (c) the victorious revolutionaries battling each other. She’s a poet who seeks out other poets and gets involved in communist activism seemingly accidentally.

Getting through this 800-page novel takes great patience, but I was borne along by Janet Fitch’s amazing range of vocabulary and imagery. For example, in a train station packed with people trying to escape Petrograd, Fitch writes, “The metallic scent of panic, soot, and trains stained the air.” (419) She tosses off hundreds of such evocative comparisons, especially in describing the smells of places. Marina’s analyses of her own actions and of the dramatically shifting society around her are trenchant: “Why did everyone want a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman? As if that were the most awful thing that could befall her.” (181) I did waver considerably in my reading commitment as the plot went truly wacky in the latter half of the novel. Marina’s wild forays into communal living, smuggling, sadomasochism, astronomy, mysticism, and animal trapping caused my head to spin. I was also disappointed, when I finally reached page 800, to find that no wrap-up was provided. The Revolution of Marina M. is only “Book I” of Marina’s story!

As Bright as Heaven     Susan Meissner     (2018)

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In the Philadelphia of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright and their three daughters take up residence with Thomas’s uncle, who is an undertaker. Pauline, reeling from the recent loss of an infant son, has what can only be described as a morbid obsession with death and joins her husband and his uncle in mortuary work. As if the war weren’t providing enough mortality, a virulent influenza strikes in 1918. (Historically, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit by the influenza pandemic, with more than 12,000 deaths, primarily among young adults.) The struggles and successes of the Bright family play out against the ravages of the disease.

I read Part 1 of As Bright as Heaven, about the first two-thirds of the book, to find out who would succumb to influenza and who would survive. Part 2 skips ahead to 1925, and I kept reading in hopes of getting some insight into the long-term effects of the losses on the human psyche. Sadly, the plot resolutions in these chapters strain credibility, veering well into melodrama territory via coincidences. As Bright as Heaven shares some themes with another novel that I’ve reviewed, The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman, which is the better historical novel.

The Atomic City Girls     Janet Beard     (2018)

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In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a makeshift city sprang up during World War II, built with federal funds and shrouded in secrecy. This was where uranium was enriched to supply the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The title of Janet Beard’s book is somewhat confusing; men and women alike labored in this “atomic city.” Readers view Oak Ridge through the fictional lives of four of the workers there: two rural women who take jobs as machine operators, a male physicist from New York who troubleshoots the industrial-scale electromagnetic process, and a male sharecropper who becomes a construction worker on the site. The intertwined stories of these characters draw in several difficult social issues, including racial discrimination in America and the morality of unleashing nuclear energy to destroy civilian targets.

There’s no lyrical prose here, just basic exposition, but I found Beard’s descriptions of the inner workings of Oak Ridge intriguing, especially because her text is enlivened by dozens of remarkable period photographs of ordinary Americans living and working in Oak Ridge, the great majority of them totally unaware of the US Army’s goals in building the complex. In a quiet corner of the middle South, the horrors of the battle fronts and of the Holocaust could seem remote, but the people at Oak Ridge are deeply affected by world events.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

An Australian Lighthouse

The Light Between Oceans     ML Stedman     (2012)

I rejected this novel for several years, put off by the gloomy plot summary on the dust jacket. But I’m trying to review more books by authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. ML Stedman, the London-based author of The Light Between Oceans, was born and raised in Western Australia, so the book seemed to fill this slot nicely.

The plot, briefly: In the 1920s, a lighthouse keeper and his wife, on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, find a dead man and a live infant in a boat that washes ashore. Desperate for a child of her own, the wife insists that they keep the baby girl rather than report the shipwreck. The husband reluctantly agrees. The complicated consequences of this decision play out over the following years, on the island and in the town on the mainland, a hundred miles away by sea.

The Light Between Oceans teeters right on the precipice of melodrama. By “melodrama” I mean writing that relies on overwrought emotions, ridiculous coincidences, and cardboard characters. Emotions do flow over the top at times, as the lighthouse keeper struggles with his code of conduct and as battles for custody of the baby escalate. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler for you to know that there are custody battles. As soon as the baby arrives, at the beginning of the book, the reader senses that trouble looms.)

There are definitely questionable coincidences in The Light Between Oceans, including the arrival of the boat baby right after the wife has suffered a stillbirth, plus several subsequent chance encounters that stretch credibility. I also questioned the logic of some of the narrative. For example, the supposed grandparents of the baby wait eighteen months to see her. I think it more likely that they or other relatives would have gone out to the island now and then, on the supply boat that made the trip four times a year. The sea passage was rough, but it was a day’s journey, hardly much for Australians accustomed to vast distances between their cities. And the lighthouse couple could have adopted a child. The orphanages of Australia were full, so it doesn’t seem reasonable that they would have been denied adoption because of their location. They could also have easily received a stack of newspapers on the supply boat from the mainland. Ah, but newspapers might have changed their decision about the baby and destroyed the premise of the story.

What saves The Light Between Oceans, then, from tipping totally into melodrama? Australia and the Australians. Stedman’s descriptions of Janus Rock (the lighthouse island) and Point Partageuse (the mainland town), both fictional, are mesmerizing. The sub-tropical flora and fauna form a backdrop to the story: jacaranda and karri trees, animals like skinks and quokkas. The details of lighthouse maintenance in the days before automation are fascinating. I can see the brilliant light shining out across the waters and feel the sharp winds of this isolated spot where the Great Southern (Pacific) Ocean and the Indian Ocean come together, often violently. I get tugged into the loneliness as well as the freedom of this wild, gorgeous place on earth.

And the Australians, still staggering from the devastating casualties of World War I, come alive in Stedman’s writing. In fact, World War I accounts for much of the emotion in the book. The lighthouse keeper, a decorated veteran of the Western Front, sustained no major physical injuries but has horrific memories and survivor’s guilt. He takes the lighthouse job, even though he’s a university-educated engineer, to get away from civilization and calm his mind. The actions of several other characters are also motivated by after-effects of the war, such as grief at the loss of sons and animosity toward citizens with German surnames.

The extreme examinations of conscience and weighing of alternatives that the characters go through could be seen as melodramatic, but I take these as reflecting the historical period of the novel. Most people in the 1920s adhered at least externally to the religious dictates of the culture, and as a result, some were troubled by over-zealous contemplation of their failings. Add in the effects of PTSD (called “shell shock” during World War I), and you’ve got a lot of authentic anguish.

In the final chapter, which serves as a kind of epilogue, Stedman spins her story out to the year 1950, taking the characters past another world war and showing the long-term consequences of their decisions back in the 1920s. I enjoyed this wrap-up, but others may find it excessive, in the category of “too much information.”

My final verdict on The Light Between Oceans: it’s worth reading. If, like me, you get attached to fictional characters, it may bring you to tears. 

Postscript: I have not seen the movie version of The Light Between Oceans. It got mixed reviews.