I was very sorry that both The Crimson Field and Mercy Street were cancelled – having been interested in the history of nursing in wartime since I read the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was in the third year infants 🙂 – and I’m always up for an American Civil War book. So this book, about a young woman working in a Union army hospital in Washington DC, definitely appealed. I didn’t find it nearly as good as it was hyped up to be; but it was quite interesting, and it certainly depicted the horrific conditions in wartime hospitals very well.
The basic storyline was that Mary Sutter, a 20-year-old woman from a well-to-do middle-class family in upstate New York, was a skilled midwife who wanted to become a surgeon. I’m not convinced that, in the 1850s and 1860s, a young single woman from a wealthy family in the eastern US would have been working as a midwife, but never mind! She was repeatedly turned down for apprenticeships (the idea of applying to medical college doesn’t seem to have come into it), but, when war broke out, ran away from home to apply to become a nurse.
Being very young and quite attractive, she was turned down by Dorothea Dix, the Union Army’s Superintendent of Nurses. I first came across Dorothea Dix when I was 12, in John Jakes’s wonderful Love and War, in which Virgilia Hazard became an army nurse. Virgilia was plain-looking and over 35, so she met Miss Dix’s requirements! Mary didn’t, but she eventually persuaded a doctor to let her work in his hospital, by agreeing to see to the cleaning and supplies and so on as well … and, of course, she did a great job, and assisted in some surgery.
What the book did well was to make a point about the lack of opportunities for women, and also about the appalling conditions within the wartime hospitals. Just going off the point slightly, one thing that never comes up in discussions about Gone With The Wind is that Scarlett and Melanie both worked in a hospital in Atlanta almost throughout the war. And, looking at real life people, Louisa M Alcott worked as a nurse during the war, and she was actually at the front. Er, where was I? Conditions in wartime hospitals. As the author pointed out, it didn’t seem to occur to the authorities – and you can say the same about both the Union and Confederate sides – to try to learn from Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War. The book really did get that across very well.
However, some of the plot was more than a bit daft. Everyone kept falling in love with everyone else. Mary and a new neighbour fell in love after about two minutes, then two minutes later he fell in love with and married her twin sister. There was this whole cliched twin thing going on – Jenny got the looks, Mary got the brains. Two surgeons also fell in love with Mary, and she seemed to be in love with both of them as well. And one of her midwifery patients left her husband two minutes after meeting Mary’s brother.
There was also a rather melodramatic plot in which Jenny died in childbirth and everyone blamed Mary for not having been there – and Mary felt particularly guilty as part of the reason she’d run away was that she was in love with Jenny’s husband. Not to mention a bizarre back story about how all Mary’s matrilineal ancestors had been midwives and one of them had delivered a dauphin of France. And, although the actual military campaigns were mentioned, no-one seemed very interested in the actual causes of the war, or what they were fighting for.
So it’s not the greatest book you’ll ever read, but it’s not bad, and it does tackle the important subject of medical treatment during wartime. I’m rather confused by some of the reviews which seem to put it in the same league as Gone With The Wind and North and South, which it most certainly is not, but I’ve read worse … and it’s only the author’s first published novel. And I do wish the TV companies would bring back The Crimson Field and Mercy Street …