Monday, July 4, 2011

An American nurse in the Great War

"Sister,"  Helen Dore Boylston

I have loved the Sue Barton books, by Helen Dore Boylston, since I was a kid, and I have five on my shelves today.  My mother was a nurse, and I was in love with the idea of going to nursing school.  Other girls might have been reading about boarding schools and wishing their parents would send them to the Chalet School.  I wanted to follow Sue Barton and Cherry Ames to nursing school.  I've forgotten most of the other series, but I still re-read Sue Barton (and I much prefer her to the less realistic Cherry Ames).

I never gave much thought to the author, though.  I don't know if the library copies I read even had an author note; if they did, it didn't make any impression.  In just the past few weeks, thanks to the internet, I've learned that Boylston served as a nurse in France during World War I; that she kept a diary of her experiences, which she later published; and (most surprisingly to me) that she became close friends with Rose Wilder Lane, with whom she took a driving tour from Paris to Albania in 1926.

I still feel, after reading Testament of Youth, that I know far too little about the First World War.  So I got Boylston's nursing diary, "Sister," from interlibrary loan.  I thought it would be an interesting companion to Testament of Youth.  Boylston, a trained nurse and an American, kept a diary that she published in 1925. Vera Brittain had no experience when she left Oxford to volunteer as a V.A.D. nurse.  Her Testament is a memoir, published in 1933.

Boylston's diary opens in February, 1918, at a convalescent hospital in Paris Plage, where she is recovering from flu and trench fever.  There is no introduction, no background, nothing to tell us how she came to be in France. A later entry mentions her third anniversary in France, but it's not clear if she only kept a diary in 1918 or only chose to publish the last year's entries.  From other sources I learned that, soon after her graduation from nursing school, she volunteered for service with a medical unit from Harvard.

Boylston details the day to day life of the medical station, which from what I can tell was located on the western coast of France, near Le Touquet.  She records her fellow nurses, the patients she cares for, the different wounds they suffer, the arrivals of yet more wounded, and the terrifying air raids that go on for weeks.  But the diary is just as much about her time off-duty, getting all the fun she could out of life to balance the mud, the fear and the death.  There is very much a "seize the day" flavor to her entries, especially with regard to the men she dates.  Normal rules and moralities don't apply; married men are considered "war rations," available for the moments of fun snatched between bombs and 48-hour shifts in the operating theatre.  Brittain's Testament is much more sombre in tone, reflecting of course the loss of her fiancé Roland Leighton in 1915, perhaps Brittain's different temperament, and also their different circumstances.  Boylston doesn't mention any relatives or friends in the armies. In addition to her fiancé, Brittain lost her only sibling Edward and two of their best friends in the war.

When Boylston returns to the United States in January 1919, like many veterans she finds the adjustment difficult:
"How we worked! We gave all we had to give, and life was glorious. Even numbed with fatigue as we were, we knew it was glorious. . . I can't stand it here much longer, in this place where nothing ever happens and every day is like every other day."
On the last page of the book, we learn that she has volunteered again, for the Red Cross, and is sailing to Paris.  As far as I can discover, she never wrote of those adventures.

I can't say I learned much about the Great War itself, but I caught at least a glimpse of what it was like to be part of that war, caring for those who fought it.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!