Lauren Willig is known for historical fiction that delves deeply into little-known aspects of war and the women who have supported victims of war. In “Two Wars and a Wedding,” she presents Betsy Hayes, a valiant woman, who is based on a real figure. Betsy becomes a nurse and ultimately saves lives when those in charge of the war efforts would do otherwise.
We meet Betsy when she is a graduate student in Athens trying to work on an archaeological dig, but is prevented from doing so by the male professor in charge of the dig. He believes that women have no place in digs because they are “fragile” females. Willig presents a balanced view of Betsy as we see her slipshod studying practices along with her passion for history and the sights in Greece. And while the men are passionate about digging up relics of war and artifacts linked to royalty, Betsy comes to realize that she wants to find relics that show everyday life in ancient Greece, kitchen items, things that were used daily, and that show how the majority of the ancient Grecians lived and cooked and ate. But first she must prove herself to the men. She must show them how tough and hardy she is by helping on the front lines of the violent conflict happening right at the Greek border.
The theme that men are obsessed with war and items that elevate the concept of violence and fighting is apparent throughout the book. Men both young and old are passionate about fighting for right—or what they perceive as “right.” Women often end up picking up the pieces of what is left over after the fighting is done. And when Betsy decides to show her professor that she is made of stern stuff by volunteering to be a nurse in the 1896 Greek conflict with Turkey, she fails to study for the nursing exam given at the conclusion of a nursing course that she has pretty much blown off. So she fails the exam, but because of important connections she’s made, she goes with the Red Cross anyway to work at a hospital near the fighting. The doctor whose exam she failed decides to show Betsy that she can’t hack it, but ends up respecting her for the works she does. Because once she learns what needs to be done, Betsy is willing to work nonstop to keep men alive.
We really see Betsy’s stubborn, determined nature when she travels to Florida in a vain effort to save her best friend, Ava, from going to the front of the Spanish-American war in Cuba to nurse the wounded. Betsy is bent on joining the Red Cross in Ava’s stead, to risk her life so that Ava can be safe. Through the alternating chapters, which are flashbacks to Greece in 1896 and Florida and Cuba in 1898, we learn that Ava and Betsy had met at Smith College when they were roommates.
Their backgrounds are interestingly juxtaposed as Ava comes from impeccable bloodlines. Her family is Boston Brahmin, but they have lost all their money, and while she desperately wants to be a physician, she can’t justify spending the money to attend medical school when she won’t be able to actually get a job once she earns the degree. Betsy, on the other hand, comes from a family whose wealth is new. Her father died and left Betsy and her brother well cared for, but her brother Alex is in control of Betsy’s funds. He also blames Betsy for both their mother’s death (during childbirth) and their father’s death (after visiting Betsy at college). Betsy wants Ava to follow her passion just as Betsy is trying to follow hers.
Willig effectively demonstrates the utter futility of war as we follow Hayes’s journey to Cuba. She plans to nurse the brave Americans who signed up to fight the Spanish who controlled Cuba at that time. Cubans were fighting Spain for their independence, and exaggerated accounts of concentration camps and starving children caused young men to flock to Florida to join soldiers fighting for Cuban freedom from Spain. And while the ultimate goal of freedom was attained, as we see clearly in the narrative, it was at the often-unnecessary cost of many lives.
At one point in the narrative, Holt, a soldier with a nebulous background, explains that the Spanish had superior weapons. The Americans were fighting with gunpowder that released smoke, indicating their position to the Spanish forces. Then, the wounded were unceremoniously left to die because those in charge refused the help of the Red Cross nurses. Part of the information is written through a series of newspaper articles written by a fellow nurse, a journalist who joined the Red Cross so that she could write about the war. Through those articles and the omniscient narrative, we see clearly the complete lack of any semblance of caring by those in charge for the needs of the fighting men. She writes about men marching with no rations, no food, inadequate weapons, and substandard medical care.
At one touching and thoughtful point in the narrative, Betsy asks Holt what he thought war would be. “A chivalric battle of armor and lances and banners. Riding to victory with pennants flying. A romanticized image of a past that never was.” In the meantime, there were hundreds of wounded soldiers left without care. Willig writes, “No hospital had been established, no preparations made. Instead, the wounded were taken to an old warehouse and deposited on the hard floor, not a cot among them.” And while the Red Cross offered their services, they were turned down. The surgeons in charge claimed they needed no help.
So the Red Cross nurses went to help the Cuban soldiers, who welcomed them with open arms. “There is no need to describe how quickly sleeves were rolled up, aprons pinned back, and men made comfortable, with clean linens and heartening gruel.” The US doctors were so shortsighted that when the Red Cross sent blankets and pillows for the American soldiers, they “were left in a heap on the floor as no one had issued an order to distribute them, and the men lay still on bare boards, beset by vermin, the flies buzzing about them, sweating in the merciless heat, some sharing a blanket between them, others without even that meager comfort.” There was no food for them, no change of clothing, no baths. The wounded lay in their own filth with no relief from pain or hunger. Of course, once the American soldiers saw that the Cuban soldiers were being cleaned, fed, and nursed back to health, they demanded that the Red Cross nurses come and care for them.
The story is put together in an unusual and fascinating fashion. Each chapter begins with either a letter from Betsy to Ava, which then takes us to a chapter set in Greece in 1896, or an article from a 1898 newspaper or other nonfiction source that leads to narrative about the Spanish-American War set in Cuba. There are complex relationships between Holt and Betsy in 1898 and between a French aristocrat Charles and Betsy in 1896. There is also the complicated relationship that Betsy has with Ava, her best friend. Because of the omniscient narrative, we are privy to Betsy’s guilt about the early death of her father as well as Holt’s guilt about the death of his mother.
There’s much to think about in this novel that literally spans continents and showcases the prejudice against women that permeated America, but not Europe, at that time. We see women in Europe entirely able to practice medicine freely. But the prejudices ingrained in the US military are shown over and over as is the shortsighted carelessness, the neglect, by those in charge for even basic needs of soldiers in their care. It’s a complex story, but Willig shines at making historical figures and historical eras come alive in the pages of her novels. Book clubs will love discussing this one. Suggested menu: Greek olives, French wine, and Spanish tapas.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.