Band of Angels
It might be said that at heart, Band of Angels is a love story. But the course of love between Catherine Carreg and her childhood friend Deio is a convoluted, meandering one. Catherine and Deio grew up riding horses together in Wales in the 1850s. But when Catherine matures, her family puts a stop to her adventures with Deio, seeing it as improper for a young lady. After her mother dies in childbirth, Catherine feels lost and isolated. She wants to go out into the world and study medicine so she can help save lives, as a way to redeem a personal failure that she couldn't save her own mother.
Catherine escapes Wales with the help of Deio, who is a cattle driver. She dresses as a man and goes to London with him on a drive. Upon reaching London, Deio seems to want Catherine to stay with him, but she rejects him outright, refusing to see him after their furtive journey together. Catherine's determination to become a nurse or doctor is rewarded when she is accepted into Florence Nightingale's school for nurses. When Nightingale abruptly leaves for the Crimean war, Catherine begs to go with her.
In the meantime, Deio realizes the railroad will soon make his job as a cattle driver obsolete. Looking for other ways to make a living, he decides to sell horses to the Allied forces in the Crimea. He takes a number of his horses to Balaklava, knowing that Catherine is somewhere near there, and hoping he will find her somehow.
Catherine and Nightingale's other nurses end up in Scutari, far from the front, where thousands of wounded and ill soldiers are hospitalized. Here, they live in squalor, and food is a luxury. Soldiers die of typhus and other diseases more often than they die of wounds suffered on the battlefield. This is the most fascinating part of the story, but it takes more than half the book to get us to this point.
Gregson's research is strong, and she succeeds in making Wales, and the cattle drive to London, come alive for the reader. But there could have been much more about Nightingale and the procedures she used in the hospital in Scutari to offer the reader historical insight. Nightingale is a filmy character here, difficult to relate to, and the war itself seems very distant as well.
It is true that Nightingale has been characterized as standoffish in reality, but still, she had the passion to take her across the world and into hospitals where no women had been allowed before. We don't see much of that drive here. Catherine's motivation for going to the Crimea needed further development, as well. In addition, it seems a bit of a leap when Catherine starts longing for Deio after she so assuredly rejected him. The love story seems almost superfluous at times.
In spite of some plot and character flaws, the book, overall, does succeed in drawing the reader into a brutal world that we want to know more about. This is one of those imperfect books that keeps you reading, looking forward to more like this: “Blood was the hardest thing of all to wash out; all of them wore it like a permanent stain. They spent most of their time on the wards trying to take it from their tangled hair and old bandages, from faces and dolls and pictures and handkerchiefs; strange what the men carried closest to their hearts.”