The long widowed Cora Blake lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. She cares for her brother-in-law and her late sister's three daughters, single-handedly keeps the tiny island library open, and finds paying work when she can, in these tough economic times, at a fish cannery. Cora's only son lied about his age and enlisted in the army during the war, dying at only 16 on a battlefield in France so far from home. Cora has spent the intervening years missing her Sammy, wondering if he had had a father at home if he would have gone and died in the war, and second guessing her decision to allow his final resting place to be the French countryside where he fell. When a letter comes from the government offering to pay to send her on a pilgrimage to see her boy's grave, all expenses paid, she jumps at the chance, leaving behind a good man who loves her and an offer of marriage and future happiness.
Cora is one of five mothers in her group, traveling together from New York to Paris and then to the quiet fields outside Verdun where their boys fought and died. The women are from all different walks of life and different situations but they have the shared loss of their sons and their unavoidable grief in common. Bobbie Olsen is a wealthy socialite from Boston. Minnie Seibert is a Russian Jewish émigré who lives on a chicken cooperative. Katie McConnell is an Irish maid from a large and loving family and she lost two sons in France while her remaining young son is forever handicapped by a bout of polio. Wilhelmina Russell is a well-to-do athletically gifted woman recently released from an asylum where she was placed by her husband because of her recurring depression and his philandering. The women are so different that there are bound to be conflicts between them as they travel but there is also the bond of their unimaginable loss. The group is accompanied by the young, just out of West Point, Lieutenant Hammond and Nurse Lily Barnett, both of whom must address and solve any problems or snafus that arise in the course of the pilgrimage, starting from the very outset with the mix-up of the Mrs. Russells, both of whom lost sons but one of whom is white and one of whom is black and therefore to be on a separate pilgrimage.
The narrative flips back and forth between all of the women, their history with their boys, their lives at home, and their hopes for the pilgrimage, but the matter of fact, down to earth, peacemaking Cora Blake's story dominates the story line. In many ways, she assumes leadership of the women, smoothing things over between them and understanding their prejudices far better than the impossibly young lieutenant and nurse can. And it is Cora who meets Griffin Reed, a reporter badly injured in the war, and offers him her friendship and understanding as well as her story, a story that will change her own ending there in France. The experience of the mothers is emotional and moving as they confront anew the loss of their much beloved sons. Some of the plot twists are quite predictable and that detracts a bit from the emotional punch that the book serves but the story over all is a fascinating one, the characters are realistic and interesting, and the truth of the pride and the grief that these women forever carried in their hearts is carefully rendered and affecting. Fans of historical fiction will be drawn into the story of the women and their pilgrimage.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.