In Wielgus-Kwon’s debut historical novel, a Chicago nurse ventures into the Wild West.
In 1867, the brutality of the Civil War is only two years in the past. Maura Spencer spent the war years treating Confederate soldiers in Chicago’s Camp Douglas, a Union prisoner-of-war camp, alongside her mother, Sara. Unable to find her place in the postwar calm, Maura accepts an invitation to visit her pregnant friend, Clare Cameron, a fellow Union nurse in the frontier settlement of Mission, Wyoming. Although Maura is conflicted about the fact that Clare has married a former Confederate soldier, she’s drawn west by friendship and restlessness. But when Maura arrives in Wyoming, she discovers that Clare has died as a result of a miscarriage. Almost immediately, Maura witnesses a deadly Sioux raid and has charged encounters with men she once treated when they were prisoners of war. However, she soon discovers that the frontier needs a nurse and that she needs the frontier, so she stays on despite the physical and emotional dangers. From there, the plot rolls forward like a stagecoach, and although the book is brief, considering its scope, new conflicts and flashbacks of the war come rapidly. Wielgus-Kwon’s decision to focus on the postwar years, rather than on the war itself, is a smart one and provides the novel with subtlety and a chance to explore trauma, both of which are often missing in research-heavy historical tales. In other ways, though, the novel is less unique; although she has a strong command of her prose, Wielgus-Kwon doesn’t shy away from the over-the-top language of the Western and romance genres. In one typical scene, Maura contemplates two men’s final resting place: “Gazing now at these pathetic prairie graves before her, she was quite certain no one would ever queue to see them. But that mattered little. Immortality, she knew, need not mean a crypt in England.” But although she breaks little new ground, Wielgus-Kwon fully captures the feeling of the time and place in both detail and speech. Fans of frontier narratives will devour the book in one sitting.
A solid, if mostly unsurprising, novel of the post-Civil War American frontier.