I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.
War and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.
The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.
And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross. Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.
If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.
If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.
And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.