This true contemporary account of an American nurse’s horrific – and sometimes bizarre – experiences while serving at a French battlefield hospital near Soissons during World War I has poignant layers which even the often naïve author did not see. “As our camion drove through the château gate we could see that the grounds were covered with what looked like sleeping men.” That is just her own introduction to the unit, housed in what was once a country estate; soon she was standing hours on end treating friend and enemy alike, facing harrowing hyperreality with aplomb.
Shirley Millard is throughout a willing reporter of her fascinating perspective on war, youth, loss, and love – and always slapdash surgery and gallows camaraderie, inside a MASH unit before there was M*A*S*H. And before antibiotics, it is painfully clear.
But she is also an unwitting reporter of so much more. The modern reader sees truths and wrongs that Shirley fails to experience herself, some at the time and too many upon rested reflection. Even some of the pronouns she uses reveal herself and the understory more than she realized. The book compels attention not only on the level on which she wrote it, which would be enough to bring crashing home this forgotten war, but also on levels hidden to her. Either way the insights pierce through, as when the young French doctor sums up war: “La gloire, la gloire! Bah! C’est de la merde!” He is a hero too, but has his own incongruous scenes later, just in his smoking habits alone.
This collection of diary entries and later flashbacks compares as a personal account of World War I to that by the much more self-aware Erich Remarque (though readers here may find themselves drawn into the lack of awareness as much as the account itself). Yet this book seems to have been lost in time and the crush of later events. As Time Magazine reviewed it in 1936, "Spare, simply written diary of a young, red-haired U.S. volunteer nurse in French hospitals near the front lines of 1918, in which romantic interludes heighten rather than ease a grisly atmosphere." It is that, but there is a lot more to it. And much of the writing is deeper than that, and certainly crisp and evocative in prose, even if some of the depth is more for the reader than the author. Ar the least it answers the question, When are maggots a good sign? And how can a man be a grateful ashtray?
Includes explanatory new Foreword by law professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard, who studied the genre as part of her Ph.D. research in History at UCLA. Features contemporary photographs of nursing and service in the war. The original book, and its incongruities and twists revealed by Townsend Gard, will stick with you. Previously only available as a rare book, now returned to its place in poignant history.
About Shirley Millard
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Published March 5, 2011
by Quid Pro Books.
History, War, Travel, Professional & Technical.