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Winter, 1919. Amanda Starkey spends her days nursing soldiers wounded in the Great War. Finding herself suddenly overwhelmed, she flees Milwaukee and retreats to her family's farm on Nagawaukee ...
Winter, 1919. Amanda Starkey spends her days nursing soldiers wounded in the Great War. Finding herself suddenly overwhelmed, she flees Milwaukee and retreats to her family's farm on Nagawaukee Lake, seeking comfort with her younger sister, Mathilda, and three-year-old niece, Ruth. But very soon, Amanda comes to see that her old home is no refuge--she has carried her troubles with her. On one terrible night almost a year later, Amanda loses nearly everything that is dearest to her when her sister mysteriously disappears and is later found drowned beneath the ice that covers the lake. When Mathilda's husband comes home from the war, wounded and troubled himself, he finds that Amanda has taken charge of Ruth and the farm, assuming her responsibility with a frightening intensity. Wry and guarded, Amanda tells the story of her family in careful doses, as anxious to hide from herself as from us the secrets of her own past and of that night.
Ruth, haunted by her own memory of that fateful night, grows up under the watchful eye of her prickly and possessive aunt and gradually becomes aware of the odd events of her childhood. As she tells her own story with increasing clarity, she reveals the mounting toll that her aunt's secrets exact from her family and everyone around her, until the heartrending truth is uncovered.
Guiding us through the lives of the Starkey women, Christina Schwarz's first novel shows her compassion and a unique understanding of the American landscape and the people who live on it.
From the Hardcover edition.
"March 27, 1919." That's a good place to begin. That's what I wrote in the top right corner of the page. "Dear Mattie." The pen shook as I raised it, splattering ink. "March 27, 1919," I wrote on a fresh sheet. "Dear Mattie."
In the end, I didn't bother to write. I knew I would be welcome. After all, Mattie had been begging me to come home for months. And what could I say? I had no explanation. No explanation but the truth, and I certainly didn't want to tell that.
The truth was that the hospital had asked me to leave. Not permanently, of course.
"Of course, we don't want you to go permanently, Miss Starkey," Dr. Nichols said. It wasn't clear whom he meant by "we," since he and I were the only ones in the office. It made me nervous knowing there were others who had talked about me, perhaps whispering in the hallways, ducking around corners when they saw me coming. They probably gathered in this very office, sipped coffee, shook their heads and tut-tutted me. Who were they?
Dr. Nichols moved some papers around on his desk. He did not look at me. "When this is over . . ." He cleared his throat. "When you're yourself again, then we'll reconsider."
He was referring to my hallucinations, I believe, although it may have been the fainting or even the accidents. He studied the desktop for a moment and then sighed, saying almost kindly,
"You'll feel much better away from this stink, believe me."
There was a stink in the hospital. A literal stink of gangrenous flesh and vomit, of ammonia and burnt oatmeal and camphor, of urine and feces. But a nurse gets used to the smells and the screams, and the sight of the men missing pieces of themselves.
And I was a brilliant nurse. I had the touch; everybody said so. The men worshiped me. Those with faces lifted them toward me when I bent over their beds. Those with arms held them out.I loved being an angel. But I had to give it up.
Dr. Nichols had a point. Somehow, I had lost control. One morning I woke up sure, absolutely positive, that my legs had been sawn from my trunk, and although I quickly realized that I had only been dreaming--my legs were right there, two ridges under the blanket--I couldn't move them, couldn't rise no matter how I tried. My roommate, Eliza Fox, had to pull me out of bed. Another time, I'm ashamed to say, I actually fainted across a soldier's chest while giving him a sponge bath.
Several times I had to run from the wards to vomit. My insides spewed out every morning, into bedpans and janitors' buckets and hastily twisted newspaper cones and the snowdrift behind the hydrangea hedge. Twice I lost the hearing in my left ear, and once I spent four hours sitting in the stairwell, waiting for my sight to return.
Syringes flew out to stab my arms; glass vials shattered in my hands; file drawers pinched the tips of my fingers. I forgot soldiers' names and the purpose of errands. Three days in a row I locked myself out of the room I shared with Eliza. And always I was so tired, so very tired, that I simply could not stay awake, no matter how often I splashed water on my face or how much black coffee I drank. Finally, I surrendered and fashioned myself a nest among the towels in the supply room. I slept there every afternoon from one-thirty to two until the day Ward F ran out of soap, and Frances Patterson was sent to get some.
Altogether, I had to admit they were right--I was beginning to make a better patient than a nurse. My body had got the...