Sisters of the Great War
- By Suzanne Feldman
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by K.L. Romo
- December 17, 2022
Two women prove their mettle amid the carnage of WWI.
Ruth Duncan’s father is a doctor in Baltimore. Since she was small, she accompanied him on his calls and learned how to diagnose and treat medical conditions. She always planned on following in his footsteps. But it crushed her hopes when he told her, at 12, that girls could not become doctors, only nurses or wives. In August 1914, with World War I underway in Europe, she reluctantly attends the Loyola College of Nursing.
Elise, her sister, has always been different from other girls. She loved what boys were interested in: learning how things worked and how to repair everything from pocket watches to engines. Now, although it’s unconventional to do so, Dr. Duncan depends on her to keep his car running. When, during a chance encounter, Elise witnesses a woman (dressed as a man) kiss another woman, something inside her stirs.
Dr. Duncan doesn’t understand either of his daughters and just wants them to be normal. He thinks Ruth’s ambition to be a doctor is a “pointless dream. Women don’t have the skills. Women don’t have the talent.” He also believes Elise is “lacking something” and is “afflicted with a retardation” because she doesn’t know how to socialize with men.
John Doweling, a friend of the family and a fellow physician, visits from London after enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps to work at the front in Belgium. When Ruth confides to him that she, too, wants to be a doctor, he tells her there’s a medical school for women in London and another in France. She now knows her father lied to her. Women can become physicians.
Ruth realizes the only way to gain medical experience is to volunteer to serve at the front alongside John. Her father is livid, but since she’s of age, he can’t stop her. Elise decides to enlist, too, so she can keep an eye on her sister. While Ruth serves in the Medical Corps, Elise will drive for the Ambulance Corps and use her mechanical skills to help maintain the lorries.
Arriving in Ypres, Ruth is assigned as a nurse to one of the 14 casualty-clearing stations. The carnage — beginning with a man whose face has been blown off — unnerves her. As the injured arrive one after another, Ruth assists the doctors struggling to keep up with the overwhelming volume of hideously wounded soldiers. Still, not all the doctors condone the notion of women as their colleagues — or equals.
Meanwhile, Elise drives her lorry through the endless mud to retrieve the injured from packed trains returning from the front and transports them to the appropriate hospital. When their screams rattle her, another driver tells Elise, “Harden your heart. You can’t save everyone.”
As the sisters navigate a frightening world ravaged by injury and death, their strength and dedication will save them in more ways than one.
Author Suzanne Feldman explicitly portrays in Sisters of the Great War the horrors of a battlefield with no rules. She takes readers into a world of shredded bodies in muddy trenches and sawed-off limbs discarded in piles. We feel the shared terror of the soldiers trying to stay alive and the medical staff laboring to save them.
Readers will root for Ruth to achieve her dream of becoming a physician, for Elise to embrace her budding — if socially verboten — homosexuality, and for both sisters to survive. Fans of intense war stories will enjoy this gripping read told from the perspective of women boldly serving in roles usually reserved for men.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. She is also a book reviewer. You can find her at Romo’s Reading Room and on Twitter and Instagram.