A review by whiskeyinthejar
Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig


3.5 stars

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Band of Sisters is a historical fiction account of the Smith College Relief Unit that brought aid to French villagers during World War I. In the author's note, Ms. Willig states that she took real events as inspiration for fictional twists. Instances that happen in the book are all taken from researched materials, particularly the Smith girls' letters to back home, and reshaped with some artistic license to create this story while character names are changed but heavily inspired by the real women.

Debutante nonsense, her mother called it. Good enough for those that don't have to worry about getting their living.

While the Unit was comprised of over ten women, the author brings the central focus to two, Kate Moran and Emmie Van Alden. They were former roommates and great friends during college but have drifted apart the six years after graduation. The chapters begin with letters from different Smithies, providing the reader with a more rounded look at the personality of the Unit, while the chapters alternate between Kate and Emmie's point-of-view. Kate went to the college on a scholarship, where Emmie comes from a powerful rich family; their falling out stems from Kate overhearing Emmie's cousin Julia, who is a doctor for the Smith Unit and gets a strong secondary character focus, calling Kate a charity case. Kate's feelings of inadequacy and not feeling like she fits in anywhere has her restless and agreeing to join the Unit when Emmie calls to ask. Emmie has her own feelings of inadequacy because of how respected and known her mother is, a powerful suffragette. Their friendship, finding themselves, and coming into their own is more the core of the story than I expected with the War more as a strong setting.

To decency, the officer had said, and those who persist in practicing it.
She would persist. She would.

Knowing that the Smith Unit was real and the events I was reading that they endured and achieved were real, of course, add a richer and deeper feel and experience to the story. From the Unit traveling to France hoping not to be torpedoed, having to create plan z when nothing planned works out quite the way it had been envisioned, and to realizing they're going to have their homebase at Grecourt, in the Somme, which was much closer to the front than any had anticipated had me locked into the story. A few villagers grew close to the women but for the most part, the focus of the story stayed on Kate and Emmie and the navigating of their friendship and their self-growth. There was also a slow building relationship added between Emmie and an English solider that had him popping in and out, because of this you could say there was a romance element but I wouldn't go the full step of adding the romance tag.

She looked at the six other remaining members of the Unit, huddled together around the trucks, each and every one of them a wonder, each and every one of them her sister. They had been strangers to each other when they arrived seven months ago, but now she knew each of them down to the bones, just as they knew her, better than she had ever known anyone.

The ending brings the War more out of simply being the setting and into the story with the Smith Unit having to retreat from Grecourt, in what we now know was the Ludendorff Offensive. The War begins to touch the Smithies more personally and presently as instead of trying to help the French villagers rebuild, they are with them fleeing for their lives. Here is where I thought the story's emotions were felt the most and meet more of what I was expecting with a World War I setting in the Somme during 1917-1918. The ending felt somewhat abridged but the epilogue gives us answers and closure with a few letters to let us know where Kate, Emmie, and the rest of the Smithies highlighted find themselves after the War. Band of Sisters doesn't necessarily bring World War I to you but it does provide a well written way to sink into a historical fiction account, mainly through the eyes of two women, of the Smith College Relief Unit and learn about the real ways these women made a difference.