Wartime suspense, tragedy, and community are brought together into a story that struck me as both beautiful and horrifying in its parallels to true accounts. This historical fiction novel follows Juliet, a WWII US Army nurse, in Italy. She enlists after she receives a final, cryptic and lost-sounding letter from her brother Tuck, who then goes MIA. And while her true underlying goal in Italy is to find Tuck and bring him home, her life in the Army takes her on a roundabout route through terror, love, mortality, ethics, and what it takes to put the pieces of humanity back together, mind as well as body.
Juliet, the shy and socially awkward girl who loved chemistry and her brother above all else in their small southern town of Charlesport, is transformed by the war into a respected figure of medical talent and stoicism, but few know of her search for the missing Tuck. Her chance to find answers arrives in the form of Barnaby, a soldier from Tuck's unit suffering from battle fatigue and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. With the help of a psychiatrist, a monk-turned-chaplain, and her own grit, Juliet makes it her duty to save Barnaby. In doing so, she may finally get the answers about her brother that she came to the front to find.
This was very much a character-driven novel, with much of the war action coming in the form of stories from the soldiers in the hospital tent. From the head nurse "Mother Hen" to Juliet's friend Glenda, even the seemingly inconsequential characters really came to life. I was sad when one by one, they split off and moved away on different currents of wartime events, but this movement and shuffling of characters is what really propelled the story forward. And even though the story starts out as Juliet searching for Tuck, her duties don't allow her to go wandering around Italy looking for him. So even though she never forgets her true purpose for being there, Juliet finds other profound meaning in her work as a talented nurse. That work is ultimately what leads her to the answers that she finds.
Historically speaking, Vanderbes's story is quite accurate. She lists an impressive number of sources in her acknowledgements, and the details that she includes give a very visceral feeling to Juliet's everyday life in the hospital. Sometimes it can be awfully gruesome (some passages about amputated arms and legs come to mind) but not overly gory, and in looking at all this battlefield horror I forgot sometimes that Juliet was only 17. Of course I was reminded by her age sometimes when her awkwardness or innocence popped up, making me cringe more than once, but this only helped to underscore the fact that she was still just a little girl in the middle of a battlefield, aged beyond her years by what she was seeing and doing every day.
I was a little bit confused and let down by the suspense that was implied in both the title and the blurb on The Secret of Raven Point. While I think I figured out the secret to which the title refers, it's not really anything concrete; more of a feeling than a single, shining truth. And while still extremely moving as well as haunting in places, Juliet's position as an Army nurse came to focus on everyday Army life rather than the search for her brother. While this is more realistic than any alternative that comes to my mind, it was a bit of a letdown after the puzzle in Tuck's last letter and the sense I got that Juliet was going to unravel that mystery. While it was still a great read, I wasn't sure that it was accurately represented by the implication of suspense and rescue.
If you liked Ian Mcewan's Atonement or the medical and psychological aspects of warfare, add The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes to your list of books to read. And if you're looking for more history about WWII nurses, their bravery and selflessness, check out Pure Grit: How American WWII Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific by Mary Cronk Farrell and Diane Carlson Evans.