Band of Angels
by Julia Gregson
Catherine Carreg has not grown up into a proper young woman. She was always a bit wild; as a child she ran all over the Welsh countryside with her best friend Deio, the son of a cattle-driver. After witnessing the death of her mother, and chafing under the rules of her father and his sister, Catherine runs away to London to become a nurse. She wants to learn enough about medicine and surgery to save women like her mother, but as a nurse her days are spent changing linens and bringing food to invalids at Florence Nightingale’s home for sick governesses. Catherine wonders if she’s made a mistake in coming to London, and dreams constantly of Deio. When she hears that Nightingale is taking volunteers to nurse the army in the Crimea, Catherine signs up and is soon on her way to Scutari. But nothing save scarcity and carnage await the nurses overseas, and Catherine is plunged into the horror of war hospitals, with nothing save her love of Deio to bring her strength.
The images of war hospitals are what stuck with me after I finished this book. Julia Gregson’s descriptions are vivid and brutal. The military hospitals were dirty, overcrowded, and horrifically understaffed and undersupplied. The despair of both the patients and the staff is crushing. It underscored the full horror of the war, which took young, able-bodied men from their loved ones and killed them not just with bullets, but with disease and starvation.
I also liked that the “angel” nurses were portrayed as real women, not ethereal paragons of virtue. Nurses had a pretty poor reputation in the 19th century, and were thought to be prone to drink, stealing and wantonness. While none of Nightingale’s nurses had formal medical training, and several characters do admit to having lovers outside of wedlock, or pinching food or medicine when dismissed from a position, they aren’t bad women. They have a job to do and do it to the best of their abilities. The popular image of Florence Nightingale as a ministering angel roaming soldiers’ camps at night to heal the sick takes a beating here. She’s rather cold and distant instead, and clearly prefers the company of powerful men to her lower-class nurses. I don’t recall many instances in which she gets her hands dirty with actual nursing; instead, she’s a careful and capable administrator.
The details were good. The atmosphere was perfect. Yet I couldn’t really get into the rhythm of the story. It took me a while to figure out why, because there was so much I did like about the book.
It was the main characters, Catherine and Deio…I just didn’t like them at all. The two of them quickly fell into romance novel tropes and played them out so perfectly. Catherine is the irresistible, feisty, independent heroine who defies the conventions of her class and the will of men to realize her dreams. Deio is the handsome, rugged
cowboy drove driver who could have any woman at any time…but he only wants Catherine, his true love since childhood, and he is not worthy of such a high-born lass so he must go to great lengths to prove his virile manhood. When they’re together, they fight. When they’re apart, they pine. It’s just…so utterly predictable, right down to the big final reunion. For me, this is a bad thing. But to other readers, like my mother, that’s just fine. She likes predictable stories that go down easily and don’t require much thinking for her evening reading. So she would have been perfectly happy with Band of Angels. I guess it just boils down to what your reading tastes are.
If you like romance stories where true love always prevails with a strong dash of historical detail thrown in, Band of Angels may be just the summer reading for you. It's not my cup of tea, but I'm definitely inspired to track down some non-fiction with more information about Florence Nightingale and nursing in the 19th century.