Sisters of the Great War – Women in WWI

Suzanne Feldman and I connected during an animated discussion of the World Wars at this year’s historical novel society conference. With Suzanne’s new novel set during WWI and my three novels set during that time period, we immediately had a common bond.

Here’s Suzanne to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel Sisters of the Great War.

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In the fall of 2016, I was looking for my next writing project. My debut novel, Absalom’s Daughters, had come out in July, and I was casting around for The Next Thing. I was in my last year of teaching high school, and as I walked into my empty classroom at about seven in the morning, it came to me that I wanted to write something epic, yet intimate, and what could be a better topic than war?

I knew I didn’t want to write about WWII. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I’d heard all the stories I ever wanted to hear, from him, around the dinner table when I was growing up. Which left me wondering about WWI. As I looked for source material, I noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Great War were about men. An exception, by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, is an outstanding memoir about women in the war, but in general, it took place outside the field of battle. The more I researched, the more I realized the battle was what I wanted to write about. 

But how does one go about writing about a war that’s been so beautifully summed up in All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer to that, I discovered, was to write about the women. 

When I started writing Sisters of the Great War, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of the women on the front lines. This led me to look more closely at the medical corps—the nurses and ambulance drivers. The drivers, I discovered, were mostly women, transporting the wounded away from the chaos of the front lines. The nurses, of course, were right there beside them, elbow deep in the conflict.

To keep the book intimate and personal, I began my research with the memoirs and diaries of women who served in the medical corps. Some of the diaries were incredibly compelling. Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, is a compilation of the diaries and journals of women from all over the wartime map. I found narratives from the European theater as well as from Serbia and Poland. The ones I was looking for, from France, Belgium and other locations along the Western Front, were there as well, in vivid detail. 

One book in particular, really informed my novel, and that was a slender volume entitled ‘Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War,’ by Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press 1989). The author, a British woman and a veteran of the Ambulance Corps, outlines the day-by-day horrors of picking up wounded soldiers and transporting them to the Casualty Clearing Stations (Hospitals). Her story is unwavering, blunt, and gripping, but what really struck me was the ending. The war, having been won, was over. Everyone was sent home, and Ms. Smith went home to London where her experiences and contributions were unacknowledged. Despite the celebrations, victory touched the women who had been at the Front differently than the men. The men were hailed as returning heroes—survivors. The women, as made obvious in Ms. Smith’s final passages, were left out in the cold to mull the differences in their roles in war and society, and to reach their own conclusions about each. Ms. Smith’s own conclusions are made evident in her title. 

Unlike Ms. Smith’s memoir, my novel, Sisters of the Great War returns the main characters to lives transformed. The two naïve young women from Baltimore, who fled their controlling father and their limited futures to volunteer in a war zone, find that their wartime roles provide them with an independence rarely granted to women. In the midst of bombings, heartache, and loss, they come to understand their own capabilities and worth. This hard-won sense of self will guide them through the challenges yet to come. 

Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman ~~ August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort—Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.

Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war’s harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.

Sisters of the Great War releases today! Many thanks for sharing the story behind Sisters of the Great War, Suzanne. I love WWI novels and have already added yours to my TBR list. Best wishes for success.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Favourite WWI Novels

Not long ago I posted Favourite WWI Novels – A Teaser, which included just a few of the novels readers mentioned in a survey of WWI fiction. I’ve now tabulated all 296 responses (over 600 books cited) to discover that readers mentioned 223 different books!

Drumroll please … the top six books are:

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (43 mentions)
  2. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (42)
  3. Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker (36)
  4. Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (29)
  5. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (23)
  6. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (19)

In addition, Charles Todd’s various novels from the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series were mentioned 29 times.

After A Farewell to Arms, numbers fall off to 9 mentions for each of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery and War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.

When time permits, I’ll publish a complete list of novels recommended by readers.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.