I couldn’t help noticing that Thomas Keneally has a new book out about WWI, about two sisters who are nurses. It’d be easy to think that this is a bit of a cliché, because so many WWI novels feature nurses. But that’s what you have to have, if you’re going to put your female characters in Europe during the war.
I’d already dug out some of my WWI nurse books, because it’s time to remember that they exist. It’s not a topic I’d expect to find in new books right now, but it’s not as if these are all that ancient.
My first one was Linda Newbery’s Some Other War, which I bought as it was re-issued about ten years ago, although first published in the early 1990s. Linda came to Offsprings’ school, just before Remembrance Sunday, so very timely. She introduced me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, also about a nurse.
Linda has two more books about the same characters; The Kind Ghosts, which starts during the war and ends after it. The third book is The Wearing of the Green, set in Ireland. After this I always get confused, because I tend to think her Shouting Wind trilogy is set in WWI. It isn’t. It’s one war later, about a descendant of the two main characters in Some Other War. So that’s two sets of trilogies about the same family, over many years.
The second nurse story is Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance, which Linda strongly recommended. Similar plot, in a way, with girls going off to war as nurses, and with a love story somewhere, as well as being about the village left behind. Realistic, and enjoyable, if you can say that about so much suffering.
My third nurse is only pretending. Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing has a female character who is too young to go to war, and she’s not a trained nurse. She has ‘only’ dabbled a bit at nursing at home, before she runs off to Europe, hoping to save her brother’s life. She can ‘see’ things, and she has seen her brother’s death in her mind. With one brother already dead, she’s desperate not to lose her other brother as well.
So, there are similarities, but only because the war was fought in a limited geographical area, and the nursing of soldiers won’t vary much. We are now a long way away in time, but through these books it’s possible to feel something of what it was like.
We have no soldiers left to talk about it, but we mustn’t forget.