Author: Susanne Dunlap
Publication Date: 4/12/11
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Blurb (GR): It's 1854 and sixteen-year-old Molly would give anything to change her circumstances as a lowly servant in a posh London house. So when she hears of an opportunity to join the nurses who will be traveling with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea, she jumps at the chance. The work is grueling, the hospital conditions deplorable, and Miss Nightingale a demanding teacher. Before long, the plight of British soldiers becomes more than just a mission of mercy as Molly finds that she's falling in love with both a dashing young doctor and a soldier who has joined the army to be near her. But with the battle raging ever nearer, can Molly keep the two men she cares for from harm? A love story to savor, and a fascinating behind-the-scenes imagining of the woman who became known as "the lady with the lamp."
I am embarrassingly under-informed about the Crimean War . Basically, all I knew about it before reading this book that it was the scene of Florence Nightingale’s nursing innovations and that the Charge of the Light Brigade happened during the conflict. (oh, and I knew the British and the Russians were fighting but I had no clue who else) During the war, Nightingale pioneered many modern nursing practices after seeing the awful living conditions to which wounded and sick soldiers were subjected. In the Shadow of the Lamp follows a young girl from a life in service to Turkey as a part of Nightingale’s nursing corps. I don’t often comment on the actual titles of books but this one is absolutely perfect. We read about famous figures in our history textbooks, but wherever those people were, there were loads of people we never hear anything about. Nightingale was known as “The Lady of the Lamp” because she would walk through the wards checking on patients during the night hours with an oil lamp. There were thousands of people in and out of those wards, patients, nurses, doctors, nuns, and this could be one of their stories.
The opening scene sees Molly Fraser, a 17 year old London girl, fired from her job as a parlormaid after a fellow employee fabricates a story of Molly thieving from their employers. With limited options, Molly decides to attempt to join Nightingale’s nurses on their voyage to the Crimea. Her only problems? She isn’t a nurse, has near no money, and has no references. It’s no spoiler that she finagles her way there.
My enjoyment of the book was hindered by the characterization of Molly. If this were an adult novel, I would be calling her a tease and naïve and her choices frustrating. However, this isn’t written for adults, relationships and courtship were quite different in the 19th century, and the protagonist is only 17. She was, however, consistent in her oft-ridiculous decisions. For example, say you were a young woman with no nursing training and Florence Nightingale told you point blank that if you fraternized with anyone, you’d be sent back to England. What would you do? Yeah, me too. She is, however, a loyal friend, a caring nurse, and a hard worker, all of which I appreciated. Molly doesn’t want to be a tease or to make these decisions, either. Just writing this paragraph has brought me to terms with her. She carries the story well and I wanted to see where Dunlap would take Molly all the way to the end.
I must admit that I was far more interested in the history and nursing aspects of the novel rather than the romance. For the first hundred or so pages, I plowed through Molly’s travel experience and smiled with enthusiasm as Nightingale and her nurses cleaned the vermin-filled, rotten, sewage-smelling, unhygienic wards until they were livable. Then again, I am a huge sucker for cleaning-up montages and before and after pictures. (even if they are only mental images) The second half of the novel concentrates more on the love triangle aspect of Molly's journey--if YA love triangles are driving you up the wall, you'd best give this a pass. I was rather apathetic about which person Molly ended up with or whose advances she accepted but the unique setting and Dunlap's writing kept me invested in the story.
The story never feels too weighed down and the pacing is consistent throughout. The author's descriptions of all the gory details of battle injuries, missing limbs, and the overall grossness of the situation in terms of sanitation were strong without feeling overdone. Historical fiction is not usually my bag but I would/will definitely read other books by this author. I dig her style, I only wish I enjoyed the characters a bit more than I did.