One of the hallmarks of good literature is a story in which things — and people — are not as they appear. In “Band of Sisters,” author Lauren Willig effectively accomplishes this and more: she writes about women who are not as they appear, but she additionally writes about the horrors of war using real history about a group of women alumni from Smith College. In other words, the devastation we see in the pages of the book is exactly as it appears, and her gripping historical novel is filled with incredible real tales of heroism and valor alongside examples of the worst behavior of which humans are capable — all carefully researched. The totality of her work is a story that is fascinating and inspiring as it makes us consider not only a global war, with its allies and enemies, but smaller bonds as well, such as friendship and family.
As Willig explains in the Historical Note at the end of the book, almost every event she includes in the story is an actual event, based on her extensive research into the women who went to France as part of the Smith College Relief Unit. But the two main characters, Emmie and Kate, are pure fiction. And sometimes the greatest truths are told through fiction. Kate and Emmie attended Smith College and became best friends in spite of their difference in “class” and “station.” Emmie’s mother is a DAR, her lineage impeccable, and her mother is a staunch fighter in the war for women’s suffrage. She grew up with every luxury imaginable. Kate, on the other hand, grew up on the very edge of poverty. Her father was a cart driver who was killed when she was just a child. Her mother took work cleaning, and they barely scraped by. Kate recalls being humiliated by scathing comments from the woman who gave her a new pair of shoes because hers were so worn. When her mother remarried a policeman, and they started a new family, Kate felt removed from them. As she grows to realize, such distance was completely of her own making, and her stepfather and her brothers love her dearly. Emmie, on the other hand, has every material possession one might wish, but her mother was always more concerned with the rights of others than with the welfare of her own children.
An important part of the story deals with assumptions we make about others based on what we see. The fact that the setting of the novel is a century ago doesn’t change the fact that human nature being what it is, we still make those same assumptions about others today simply based upon what we see. Perhaps that happens even more today, given our obsession with Instagram image perfection, and we see that those same unfortunate assumptions have stood the test of time. If you are rich, you must be happy. If you appear to be rich, you must be happy.
Willig creates the story through not only plot and dialogue, but also interestingly through written correspondences from the women and others, which act as an introduction to each chapter. The letters and diary entries serve to give us a hint of what will happen in the story, jumping ahead while the actual story continues chronologically.
Emmie and Kate are the main characters, but we also meet the other women in the group, especially Emmie’s cousin Julia, a doctor. Julia is yet another example of a person who is not as she first appears. Kate has known Julia for over a decade, yet she doesn’t really begin to know her or understand her until they are at the front lines together, where secrets are difficult to keep hidden.
The Historical Note is of utmost interest, and it is quite intriguing to realize what Willig accomplished in this fictional tale that is based almost completely on true events. In addition to exploring the actions of this group of college-educated women exemplifying bravery, intelligence, and valor, Willig has managed to create a novel that forces us to consider important questions about war, community, sacrifice, friendship, family, and love. Several of the characters are unforgettable, and the violence and tattered post-war existence of the survivors is also indelibly etched into our minds, as is a beautiful love story.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.