Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Lamp, by Susanne Dunlap (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  
Release date:  April 12, 2011

Susanne Dunlap is fast becoming one of my favorite YA historical fiction authors; her third novel for teens, In the Shadow of the Lamp, follows the adventures of 16-year Molly Fraser, as she joins the nurses traveling with Florence Nightingale to the far-off Crimean war. As the novel opens, Molly loses her job as a chambermaid in one of London's aristocratic mansions when she is unjustly accused of stealing.  With no letter of reference, there are few respectable options open to her for employment.  Although she is too young and inexperienced to gain employment as one of Miss Nightingale's corps of nurses, by her wits she manages to sneak aboard their ship.  When she is found out, the very imposing and strict Miss Nightingale is impressed by Molly's determination to redeem herself and decides to give her a chance to be trained on the job.  She warns her that at the first sign of familiarity with any man, she'll be sent packing! 

But somehow we know romance will be in Molly's future (this is a YA novel, after all).  And not only one handsome young man is after her, but two:  Will with the kind eyes, the valet who follows Molly by enlisting in the British army; and Dr. Maclean, a Scottish doctor at the hospital who Molly is intensely attracted to.   And Molly finds friendship, too, with another young nurse, Emma.  Molly begins to earn the respect of the other nurses when she helps take care of all the ones suffering from seasickness during the ocean voyage to Turkey.  Soon they land, and she is amazed by the sights, sounds, and smells of Scutari, where they arrive shortly after the famous charge of the Light Brigade has produced hundreds of casualties, soon to arrive by ship.  But when the nurses arrive at the hospital, it's Molly's cleaning and mending experience that comes in handy--the place is filthy, filled with giant rats and lice,with overflowing latrines and piles of mending and washing to be done.

Dunlap makes sure to share some of Nightingale's philosophy of nursing, which was not just to do with giving medicine and bandages.  As strange as it seems to us now, her message was revolutionary at the time:  provide the sick and wounded with fresh air, warmth, and food, so that their bodies would heal.  She soon whips the hospital in Scutari into shape, securing supplies such as beds, fresh straw for mattresses, linens, even curtains to shield the patients from each other when the doctors were performing surgeries.  We see her through Molly's eyes, visiting the wards at night with her famous lamp, making sure the men were safe. 

Can Molly make something of herself as a nurse?  Will she be able to handle the hard work, the horrible sights and smells of the hospital, and Miss Nightingale's strict rules of behavior?

Once again Susanne Dunlap has created an incredibly sympathetic character as her protagonist.  Young Molly is far from perfect but is the type of young woman you'd want on your side in a difficult situation--like being at a battlefield hospital far from home.  This book combines romance, adventure, and history with an appealing plot and characters with teen appeal.  A great pick for public or school libraries!

In conjunction with reading this book, it might be fun to rent the 1985 TV miniseries biopic on Florence Nightingale, released on DVD in 2009, and starring former Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith and Timothy Dalton (available from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local library). 

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

1 comment:

Susanne said...

LOL! The idea of Jaclyn Smith as Florence! But really, thank you so much for this thoughtful and wonderful review.