We’re delighted to have Anita Shreve with us today as she contributes to our 2014 series, Picture This! We’ve asked a select group of authors to share the images that inspired their most recent novels and I think you’ll find Anita’s to be quite moving. We’ve got a copy of her novel STELLA BAIN available to one lucky reader today. See the entry post below for details.
She sleeps in a bell tent on the coast of France.
The year is 1915. She wakes each morning to a bugle call, or earlier if an ambulance is bringing casualties from the front. There is only a basin of cold water to wash in. She puts on her underwear, a blue dress, a white bib with a red cross on the bosom and a cap made from a white piece of cotton cloth. From that moment, she will spend nine or ten hours (and likely more), performing triage (separating the men near death from the ones who might be saved, then leaving the men likely to die in a separate space, often outside the tent, to be comforted as best as the staff can do), and assisting in surgeries, most of them the amputation of limbs to avoid the dreaded gas gangrene, poison from a wound that will crawl through the extremities until the torso and head are infected, at which point, the man will die. She is appalled by her surroundings: the soil thick with manure and human waste, mud-laced wounds that cause suppurating infections, a compound fracture that becomes a death sentence. A swab of Lysol along with gauze dipped in iodine is all the medicine on offer. Most of the men die.
A surgeon replaces a portion of a man’s skull with silver plate. Our nurse stands at attention, delivering instruments, taking the fouled ones from the surgical nurse to be cleaned and boiled, and stepping up when ordered to mop blood from a wound. In the surgical partition, there is quiet, but out in the tent with the wounded, there is chaos. Screams of the injured, moans from the newly treated, and shrill orders from the ward sisters. Our nurse tends to the less pressing duties as well, namely the care and comfort of the soldiers: bathing them, feeding them, writing letters for those who think they will die, and trying as best she can to treat the soldier with shell shock who exhibits what comes to be known as ‘the thousand yard stare.’
When her shift is over, she will eat in the canteen tent, return to her place in the bell tent, take off her clothes, try to get the blood stains out, pick lice from the seams of her dress, and wash her body as best as she can. Exhausted, she might chat with her tent mates before she lies back on her cot and falls asleep.
She is a hero, unsung and seldom rewarded.
* * *
When an American woman, Stella Bain, is found suffering from severe shell shock in an exclusive garden in London, surgeon August Bridge and his wife selflessly agree to take her in.
A gesture of goodwill turns into something more as Bridge quickly develops a clinical interest in his houseguest. Stella had been working as a nurse’s aide near the front, but she can’t remember anything prior to four months earlier when she was found wounded on a French battlefield.
In a narrative that takes us from London to America and back again, Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, set against the haunting backdrop of a war that destroyed an entire generation.