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FLIGHT OF THE WILD SWAN by Melissa Pritchard Kirkus Star


by Melissa Pritchard

Pub Date: March 12th, 2024
ISBN: 9781954276215
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

A fresh imagining of an icon.

Complicating the image of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) as a saintly ministering angel, Pritchard draws on her subject’s voluminous correspondence and journals to create a nuanced portrait of a woman characterized by one contemporary as “an unsexed creature of narcissism, self-regard, and icy ambition.” Raised in wealth, educated by her erudite father, Nightingale refused to conform to passive, frivolous Victorian womanhood. “I may not know why I was born,” she writes in her commonplace book, “but it cannot be to wage war on dust and broken crockery.” She desperately wants to help her father’s poor, struggling tenants. “I long to live with them,” she admits. “I am drawn to sickness,” she says elsewhere. When she is 17, God speaks to her, calling her to end the world’s suffering, a command that fuels her life’s work. She visits hospitals, orphanages and asylums. She reads government reports on hospital systems and workhouses, taking copious notes. To her mother’s dismay, she refuses a marriage proposal from an ardent suitor, instead pressing her parents for permission to train as a nurse. Living at home, she feels herself becoming “a seething creature, poisoned by rage, with an oversized brain”—until finally her father relents. Pritchard recounts her training in Germany and Paris; her growing reputation; and her intense friendship with statesman Sidney Herbert, who persuades her to lead a contingent of nurses to the Crimea. Faced with filth, vermin, disease, lack of supplies, and hostility from the doctor in charge, Nightingale nevertheless prevails. “‘Nightingale power,’” Pritchard writes, became “a much-used phrase around the hospital, a reference to her uncanny ability to procure whatever she wants by argument, persuasion, donations, use of her own funds, or other more mysterious, coercive, or stealthy means.” God’s selfless and compassionate servant, in Pritchard’s portrayal, is an indomitable force.

A brisk, perceptive narrative.