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Two Wars and a Wedding


Two Wars and a Wedding

Lauren Willig is known for historical fiction that delves deeply into little-known aspects of war and the women who have supported victims of war. In TWO WARS AND A WEDDING, she presents Betsy Hayes, a valiant lady who is based on a real-life figure. Betsy becomes a nurse and ultimately saves lives when those in charge of the war efforts would do otherwise.

We meet Betsy when she is a graduate student in Athens trying to work on an archaeological dig, but is prevented from doing so by the male professor in charge of it. He believes that women have no place there because they are "fragile." Willig offers a balanced view of Betsy as we see her slipshod studying practices, along with her passion for history and the sights in Greece. While the men are passionate about digging up relics of war and artifacts linked to royalty, Betsy comes to realize that she wants to find objects that show how the majority of the ancient Grecians lived, cooked and ate. But first she has to prove herself to the men. She must show them how tough and hardy she is by helping on the front lines of the violent conflict happening right at the Greek border.

"It's a complex story, but Willig shines at making historical figures and eras come alive in the pages of her novels. Book clubs will love discussing this one. Suggested menu: Greek olives, French wine and Spanish tapas."

The theme that men are obsessed with war and items that elevate the concept of violence and fighting is apparent throughout the book. Men both young and old are eager to fight for what is right (or what they perceive to be right). Women often end up picking up the pieces of what is left over after the fighting is done. When Betsy decides to show her professor that she is made of stern stuff by volunteering to be a nurse in the 1896 Greek conflict with Turkey, she doesn’t study for an exam given at the conclusion of a nursing course that she has pretty much blown off. So she fails, but because of important connections she has made, she goes with the Red Cross anyway to work at a hospital near the fighting. The doctor whose test Betsy flunked decides to show her she can't hack it, but ends up respecting her for all that she does. Because once she learns what needs to be done, she is willing to work nonstop to keep men alive.

We really see Betsy's stubborn, determined nature when she travels to Florida in a vain attempt to save her best friend, Ava, from going to the front of the Spanish-American War in Cuba to nurse the wounded. Betsy is bent on joining the Red Cross in Ava's stead, to risk her life so that Ava can be safe. Through alternating chapters, which are flashbacks to Greece in 1896 and Florida and Cuba in 1898, we learn that Betsy and Ava had met at Smith College when they were roommates.

Their backgrounds are interestingly juxtaposed as Ava comes from impeccable bloodlines. Her family is Boston Brahmin, but they have lost all their money. And while she desperately wants to be a physician, she can't justify spending the money to attend medical school when she won't be able to actually get a job once she earns her degree. Betsy, on the other hand, comes from a family whose wealth is new. Her father died and left her and her brother, Alex, well cared for. But Alex is in control of her funds. He blames Betsy for the deaths of both their mother (during childbirth) and their father (after visiting her at college). Betsy wants Ava to follow her passion just as she is trying to follow hers.

Willig effectively demonstrates the utter futility of war as we follow Betsy's journey to Cuba. She plans to nurse the brave Americans who signed up to fight the Spanish, who controlled Cuba at that time. Cubans were fighting Spain for their independence, and exaggerated accounts of concentration camps and starving children caused young men to flock to Florida to join soldiers fighting for Cuban freedom from Spain. And while the ultimate goal of freedom was attained, it was at the often unnecessary cost of many lives.

Holt, a soldier with a nebulous background, explains that the Spanish had superior weapons. The Americans were fighting with gunpowder that released smoke, indicating their position to the Spanish forces. Then the wounded were unceremoniously left to die because those in charge refused the help of the Red Cross nurses. Part of the information is presented through a series of newspaper articles written by a fellow nurse, a journalist who joined the Red Cross so she could write about the war. Through these pieces and the omniscient narrative, we clearly see the complete lack of any semblance of caring by those in charge for the needs of the fighting men. She writes about men marching with no rations or food, inadequate weapons and substandard medical care.

At one touching and thoughtful point in the novel, Betsy asks Holt what he thought war would be: "A chivalric battle of armor and lances and banners. Riding to victory with pennants flying. A romanticized image of a past that never was." In the meantime, there were hundreds of wounded soldiers left without care. Willig writes, "No hospital had been established, no preparations made. Instead, the wounded were taken to an old warehouse and deposited on the hard floor, not a cot among them." And while the Red Cross offered their services, they were turned down. The surgeons in charge claimed they needed no help.

So the Red Cross nurses went to help the Cuban soldiers, who welcomed them with open arms: "There is no need to describe how quickly sleeves were rolled up, aprons pinned back, and men made comfortable, with clean linens and heartening gruel." The US doctors were so shortsighted that when the Red Cross sent blankets and pillows for the American soldiers, they "were left in a heap on the floor as no one had issued an order to distribute them, and the men lay still on bare boards, beset by vermin, the flies buzzing about them, sweating in the merciless heat, some sharing a blanket between them, others without even that meager comfort." There was no food for them, no change of clothing, no baths. The wounded lay in their own filth with no relief from pain or hunger. Of course, once the American soldiers saw that the Cuban soldiers were being cleaned, fed and nursed back to health, they demanded that the Red Cross nurses come and care for them.

The story is put together in an unusual and fascinating fashion. Each chapter begins with either a letter from Betsy to Ava, which then takes us to a chapter set in Greece in 1896, or an article from an 1898 newspaper or other nonfiction source that leads to a narrative about the Spanish-American War set in Cuba.

There is much to think about in this novel that literally spans continents and showcases the prejudice against women that permeated America, but not Europe, at that time. We see women in Europe entirely able to practice medicine freely. But the prejudices ingrained in the US military are shown over and over, as is the shortsighted carelessness and neglect by those in charge for even the most basic needs of soldiers in their care. It's a complex story, but Willig shines at making historical figures and eras come alive in the pages of her novels. Book clubs will love discussing this one. Suggested menu: Greek olives, French wine and Spanish tapas.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on March 31, 2023

Two Wars and a Wedding
by Lauren Willig