Title: Band of Sisters: The Women of Smith College Go to War
Author: Lauren Willig
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: World War I FranceDescription: Based on actual events, this is a novel about a group of Smith College alumnae who traveled to France during the First World War to assist small French villages that had suffered from German destruction. The heroines are Kate Moran, a one-time scholarship student at Smith, who has been teaching French at a girls’ school in Boston and is desperate to escape and see the world, Emmie Van Alden, her privileged college roommate whose work at a settlement house in New York introduced her to abject poverty, and sixteen other young women, including two doctors. When the Smith College Relief Unit reaches France, these representatives of the Seven Sisters face challenging conditions without adequate supplies to provide much-needed assistance. However, as the women overcome their own differences and bring hope to the villagers, Kate and Emmie both gain confidence and resolve the insecurities that each has struggled with and which has impeded their friendship despite their achievements.
My Impression: As many know, I am fascinated by women in war and early women’s colleges, so the minute I heard about this book, I was eager to read it and I enjoyed it. The topic reminded me of Came a Cavalier, Frances Parkinson Keyes’ dated but moving book about a young woman named Constance, a graduate of Tufts, who travels to France to work for the Red Cross during World War 1. I had read Willig’s first Pink Carnation book, which was enjoyable but too implausible for me to invest a lot of time in the series, and The Ashford Affair, a multi-generational novel set partly in Kenya, but much preferred this historical novel. Heroine Kate has a chip on her shoulder because of having been a scholarship student at Smith, although it turns out the woman who was cruelest to her was also receiving family support for her education. She feels she no longer fits into her mother’s second family in Brooklyn but she seems no happier as a teacher, although she is independent.
Kate’s college roommate Emmie Van Alden turns out to be a more interesting character, and I think the author agreed with me as she focuses on Emmie toward the end of the book. All her life, Emmie has been in the shadow of her very affluent, activist mother, and although she made it through Smith, is insecure about her skills and her looks. However, unlike many of her peers, she has spent the years since college working in New York settlement houses and is well suited to the work in France, rolling up her sleeves to attack whatever needs to be done and reassuring the locals. Kate resents that Emmie funding her trip without telling her but Emmie’s intentions were good and the trip changes Kate’s life. Fortunately, it also changes Emmie, helping her gain confidence and providing a more than eligible and congenial Englishman who knows about the Scarlet Pimpernel. We all need one of those!The Intrepid Reader.