In April 1917 a pioneering archaeologist and humanitarian gave an inspiring speech at the elite Smith College of Northampton, Massachusetts, to create a group of 18 volunteers from Smith College (along with backing and supplies) to travel to France during WW I. The Smith College Relief Unit in gray uniforms with touches of French blue went into the Somme in the middle of the war, not far from the advancing enemy lines to provide aid and help to the villagers (largely women, children, and the elderly) trying to survive in the midst of burned out villages, with little food, no medical care, and no supplies as well as traumatization by the constant shelling by the Germans leaving physical and psychological wounds, and the loss of so many they loved.
This largely unknown story comes to life in an historical novel, Band of Sisters, written by New York Times Bestselling author, Lauren Willig. Willig stumbled upon the story when she discovered Ladies of Grécourt, a memoir written by one of the members of the unit. This discovery led her to search out and unearth letters written by various other members of the unit and from these, weave a story of what they experienced using her expert skill as an author to add details that capture the reader and fit the facts she gleaned in her research.
The women of the Unit could not have known what to expect nor realized how ill-prepared they largely were to work in the small villages and countryside with no knowledge of farming or other things needed to rebuild the lives of the people trying to survive there while living in constant danger and threat from the advancing German army. Few of the Unit spoke French and yet here they were crossing the submarine controlled Atlantic faced with trying to find ways to transport the supplies they brought with them to these small villages ravaged by the war.
Their plan included helping the villagers by first supplying food and then finding ways to plant seeds, raise livestock, and improve shelter when every home and farm had been decimated. They were also to develop a school and bring hope where there was none. Two doctors were among the original volunteers in the story, but they could not have guessed how they would handle the wounds that were unseen evidenced by children who no longer played nor seemed to know how to do so after years of war and the trauma it had etched in their memories.
The women of the Unit came from various graduating classes from Smith and did not know each other well. Most were from well-bred high society families who were used to be cared for and catered to rather than serving, but as the story unfolds you discover a group of women who gained courage and bonded together through these horrendous circumstances and rebuilt the small village of Grécourt, their home base, from which they traveled on foot, cart, or creaky vehicles they assembled to reach even smaller villages.
You will get a closeup view of how they learn and grow as women from their home base of the bombed-out chateau of Grécourt, how the villagers begin to come out from their places of hiding to try to rebuild their lives. But in the success of this, your heart will also ache with the characters of the story as the German forces break through the lines and the women of the Smith Relief Unit must leave behind all they have done and begin fleeing ahead of the German onslaught along with the villagers who are being traumatized yet again looking for safety.
The author’s lens will allow you to go inside the relationship of the two heroines, Kate Moran, and Emmie Van Alden. Both are Smith graduates but Emmie from an aristocratic home and Kate whose scholarship won her admittance but whose mother scrubbed floors for a living. They had known each other at Smith but never knew the real person behind the facade each portrayed. Their experience in the unit will cause the facade to unravel and these two will learn hard lessons bringing them to this important truth: “True friendship isn’t abstaining from hurting one another, but forgiving each other when you do.”
This gripping story will remind you “that it isn’t what you have, it’s what you make of it” and give you a glimpse of what happens to people’s lives in a war zone beyond the battles fought and portrayed on film and in books. It will also inspire you to consider what a difference a group of women unsuited for the edge of the front-line battlefield can do when they band together. You will see the depth of character develop in each of the main characters as they grow to love and care deeply for those they came to serve as well as many they had not planned to. It’s a book you shouldn’t miss.