"Sometimes I think I cannot bear it another hour, that I’ll just leave here; but when I see these miserable [people]...I think it cruel to go, for, if anywhere, I can do some good here; these poor fellows have at least someone to help them."
-Mary Phinney von Olnhausen
Just a sliver of the quotes from the book Heroines of Mercy Street, from one of the Civil War nurses profiled in the book. The phrase, “…poor fellows have at least someone to help them,” reminded me of a quote from William Wordsworth: "The best portion of a good man's life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love."
I had a mixed reaction to this book. First, the good:
“Little nameless" acts of kindness shine through the pages of Heroines by Pamela Toler, PhD. We know through our history books that the Civil War was horrific and that it wasn’t even supposed to be a war.
After the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 militia volunteers to serve for 90 days — to put down an insurrection. Nothing was said about any other support. Yet, Dorothea Dix, upon hearing Lincoln’s request, set out immediately to volunteer her services to start an army corp of nurses to care for wounded soldiers. This is where the book begins in its chronicle of the true stories of women who answered the call.
Nursing was not yet a profession; there was no training. Just as tragic as the ugly fighting was the misery after the battles — the unpreparedness to transport wounded who lay for days on the battlefield, the conditions that allowed dysentery and typhoid to sweep through hospitals causing as many deaths as battle wounds, and the lack of food, water and clothing in the makeshift hospitals. Here, overwhelmed doctors scolded the nurses to stay impersonal, “The one fault that they find is ‘that I have too much sympathy for the sick’!” wrote nurse Amy Morris Bradley.
Small acts of sympathy meant finding out a soldier’s name to call him by it, sitting with the dying so he would not be alone when passing away, writing a letter. “I am hearing too many blessings now-a-days from sick and dying men to be in doubt any longer whether or not I am doing good.” said nurse Elvira Powers.
I liked the quotes Toler sprinkles through the book from Powers' and the other women’s letters and journals. And I am moved by this terrible time in our history. But, this brings me to the “mixed” part of my review. For me, the quotes weren't enough for me to be truly hooked by the book. You might remember my reason for reading it is that I’m exploring what kind of book genre I’d like to write someday. Heroines is non-fiction. Its thorough research is reflected in the factual references to geography, influential people and Civil War detail. It just didn’t grab me.
My friend Teri told me it was the PBS series “Mercy Street,” based on the book, that grabbed her. The fictionalized version.I will have to see if Netflix has the series to check it out. In the meantime, it looks like historical fiction is the genre appealing to me most.
Do you have a favorite historical figure I should check out?
Update on exploring steps to write a book:
Writing 30 minutes/day: Still at it! Today is Day 36.
Research similar authors: In a few days I’ll start The Abandoned Heart by Laura Benedict who I met at a recent literary event where I heard Laura read aloud from the book. It’s a spooky ghost story set in the past — a different twist on historical fiction. I usually avoid horror flicks and books so I am anticipating the reading with a little shiver.
Being more consistent on social media: Last week I mentioned that by participating in a 100-day challenge I’m meeting my 2-3 posts/week goal; however, I want to support others more than post about myself so this week will be more intentional about retweeting others. If you’d like to take a peek, my Twitter is @joanfern and Instagram is joanferndz.
Despite my criticism of Heroines it does linger with me a little. I especially loved how the nurses’ experiences gave them an opportunity to prove abilities and cultivate courage to help others in ways they’d never dreamed. Mythology writer Joseph Campbell put it thoughtfully, “When we quit thinking primarily of ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”