She had her entire life planned until the Great War began and everything changed.
April 1914. Barrie, Ontario. Hettie Steward is feisty, educated, ambitious and stubborn. Her fiancé, Geoffrey Bartlette, the love of her life since childhood, has been a patient man. He waited while she attended nursing school and worked a year, but now it is time to wed. While Hettie is thrilled to be starting her life with Geoffrey, she laments that marriage means sacrificing her beloved nursing career, and domestic life brings her nothing but drudgery and boredom.
When the Great War begins a few months into their marriage, Geoffrey enlists and persuades Hettie to join the Canadian Army Nursing Service and follow him overseas. After all, everyone says the war will be short, and it will be their opportunity to have a proper honeymoon. Returning to work is exactly what Hettie was craving, and she eager accepts.
The war, however, does not end quickly. Soon tragedy strikes, proving true the old adage “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Geoffrey is killed at the Second Battle of Ypres, and Hettie is faced with a choice. Return home or stay in Europe and continue nursing? Moreover, will she discover the person she is meant to be now that her life has been steered onto a new path?
Angel of Mercy is the first in a trilogy following Hettie and her family as they navigate the challenges and heartbreak World War 1 brings. Each novel is a standalone story.
Also available: Those Left Behind, the home front story. Adjustment Year, the homecoming story.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. Who would have guessed a hard rock song could inspire an entire historical fiction novel? But that’s exactly what happened with my novel, Angel of Mercy. It was inspired entirely by the song “Mama” from My Chemical Romance's album Welcome to the Black Parade. The song begins and ends with the sounds of a bombardment, reminding me of World War I.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
While the song "Mama" by My Chemical Romance is full of imagery related to war killing off mothers’ sons, it also became the inspiration for several characters. The song's narrator and Mama became Geoffrey and Mrs. Bartlette, his mother. “And when you go don't return to me, my love” and “If you can coddle the infection they can amputate at once” were the inspiration for Hettie, the main female character, who is a nurse. Indeed, all the characters in the novel were indirectly inspired by the song as they are all doomed to their fate. “We're damned after all. Through fortune and flame we fall.”
“Today is August 5,” Hettie said, marking the day off the calendar. “That means we’ve been married 75 days.”
Hettie’s voice sounded foreign and loud. She was alone, having gotten into the habit of talking to herself to alleviate her loneliness, yet she had not grown accustomed to the sound of her own voice. The hair stood up on her arms.
A day like today would be an opportune time to visit Mabel, but circumstances had conspired against Hettie. Mabel was pregnant now, and her over-protective husband, Gardner, would not allow her to exert herself in any way, believing activity of any kind was harmful, and he did not permit Mabel to go out or entertain visitors.
“That means it’s been 76 days since I was last at Royal Victoria.”
One vulnerable afternoon, Hettie had made the mistake of venting to Mother and was told she had electricity, central heat and running water — which Mother didn’t have in her first home — and, therefore, had no right to complain. Mother’s words, though, were mostly exaggeration. She never had to struggle much, even in the early days of marriage. Father’s inheritance had been generous, allowing the family to live a life without worry while still pursuing their own interests.
Mother was protected from being subjected to the daily labors most of her peers endured because she had the help of the family’s housekeeper, Mrs. Norris. With Hettie’s marriage, Mother had four children left at home, whom she was trying to mold and guide, and also her customary social rounds to make, and those were the most stringent of her daily activities.
“Okay, groceries, I suppose you aren’t going to put yourselves away. If only you could.”
Hettie glowered at her adversary, a basket of groceries sitting on the kitchen table. This morning, she had struggled to carry the basket up the three flights of stairs to the apartment and had almost dropped it twice. It was as if the basket was taunting her now, daring her to put everything into the cupboards. Beside the basket sat her housekeeping account book, still open to the page where she recorded today’s purchases. There was little left in the budget to cover any more expenses.
Geoffrey knew nothing of Hettie’s dissatisfaction. She had refrained from mentioning it to him, even in passing, for fear she would inadvertently give him the impression that he was at fault, that perhaps she regretted marrying him because he failed to give her the type of home she was accustomed. She was content with Geoffrey himself. His presence put her nerves at ease and calmed her mind, but when he was away, she wished she were anywhere else. How could she explain that to him without reinforcing his belief that he wasn’t good enough for her?
Hettie examined the figures in her accounting book as if somehow the numbers could have changed.
“I mustn’t forget to order more ice. It can’t be avoided in this weather.”
Hettie looked out the window before adjusting the table fan in a futile attempt to bring in a cool breeze. People seemed more energetic than usual, their pace more hurried, their voices more boisterous. She wondered if something had happened or if it was just her imagination.
“Maybe Geoffrey’s heard something at the office and will tell me when he comes home.”
She returned back to her drudgery and the pile of clothing on the sitting-room floor.
“Geoffrey’s work shirts need starched. My dress needs ironed. Those need washed. Is housework going to be my entire lot in life until the end of my days?”
The building had no washing machine, so she could only do a few pieces at a time. She had to scrub laundry in the bathtub, wring it out and then either lug it outside to hang on the clothesline or hang it by the stove to dry.
Her houseplants sat on the windowsill above the kitchen radiator looking parched. She watered them while watching the street below.
“What is going on down there?” she said, this time to the plants. “You know, it could be my imagination getting the better of me. If it is, won’t I feel silly. Geoffrey will be home soon enough. I could just wait and ask him. And the laundry needs done. But if I go buy a newspaper, it’ll settle this at once.”
She turned around and spotted her accounts book. There was scant money left for frivolous things, and a newspaper was by no means a necessity, but there was definitely something different about today.
Soon Hettie was stepping onto Owen Street and tipping her face upwards to feel the sun on her skin. She inhaled deeply and her nostrils were met with the stink of manure mingled with exhaust fumes, but it didn’t matter. It was wonderful being outside, among the town’s other inhabitants. She took a moment to savor this, and then remembered why she was outside in the first place – the newspaper. As she made her way to the end of the street, she caught bits and pieces of people’s conversations but not enough to tell what, if anything, was happening. When she passed one building, a dog began barking, and in front of another, the scratching noises of broom bristles being swept across the sidewalk caused Hettie to shudder. She quickened her pace, and, finding a place to cross, found a newsboy standing on the corner of Owen and Worsley.
“War declared!” she heard him say over the din.
Again she shuddered, and the dog’s barking somehow seemed prophetic as if it had been warning her not to go any further, not to pursue her curiosity because she’d be sorry if she did.
The newsboy shouted again. “Canada joins the war!”
Hettie purchased a copy, and a furrow appeared in her brow as she read the headline and subheads. GREAT BRITAIN DECARES WAR ON GERMANY! OFFICIAL DECLARATION CAME LAST NIGHT. CANADIANS OFFER TO SERVE.
Her heart began to race. Simply because Britain had declared war on Germany didn’t automatically mean Canada had to, or at least that’s what Father would argue, because in reality, being a Dominion of the Empire did mean Canada had no choice. The only freedom the government had was determining the nation’s level of involvement.
For some unknown reason, she felt nauseated. No one she knew was in the permanent force; there barely was a permanent force. There was a much larger militia, but she didn’t know anyone involved in the militia either. She had no cause for worry, she told herself, yet this did not calm her sour stomach.
Someone whistled, and Hettie nearly dropped her newspaper. A man was waving his hat in the air, motioning for others to join him. He, too, purchased a paper and hoisted it high above his head.
“We’ll thrash those Heinies and make them regret the day they stepped foot into Belgium.”
Two other men shouted in agreement.
“God save the King.”
This brought both cheers and applause.
As Hettie stood motionless, the man began parading down the street, shouting patriotic pronouncements that were met with smiles, applause and the occasional shout. When he began singing “Rule Britannia,” it didn’t take long for others to join him.
People are actually happy about this? she thought as goosebumps covered her body. They’re happy we’re at war?
She watched until she could no longer tolerate it, then hurried home. Once there, she tossed the newspaper, its pages slightly damp from her clammy palms, onto the kitchen table and thought of Father. Benjamin Steward was proud of his heritage, but he believed Canada had been a Dominion long enough to decide what was best for it and its territories. He would certainly think this was the worst news possible.
“You’re the one who had to know what was going on,” she said. “You had to know, and now you do know and it’s unthinkable. It can’t be undone. What am I going to do?”
Hettie wiped her shaking hands on her skirt.
“Calm yourself. You can’t stand here glaring at the paper willing the headline to change. Do something. Do something!”
Hettie turned on her heel and left the apartment, this time so quickly she didn’t even lock the door. After 15 minutes of wandering downtown, Hettie found herself in front of Gregsen’s Motorcars, Trucks and Trolleys. She lingered on the sidewalk for a moment examining the building as if she’d never seen it before. Gregsen’s name was on the storefront sign, but “Walter Steward, manager” was painted in bold lettering on a smaller sign beside the front door.
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