Bess Crawford is a nursing sister during World War I. Having been raised in a military family in India, Bess is not the typical Englishwoman. She is self assured and independent. Her father is highly respected in the forces but never had a son; thus, Bess has her parents’ full support (and worry) when she decides to join up. And rightly so. Bess is injured when the Britannic is attacked, and her bravery is immediately apparent as she helps to save others while herself dealing with a badly-broken arm.
While home recuperating, Bess is haunted by the dying wish of Arthur Graham. He wanted her to personally deliver a message to his family. Bess knows she should go, but it’s an emotional journey as Bess cared more than she should have about Arthur. So when she finds that Mrs. Graham and Arthur’s two brothers indifferent to his deathbed utterances, Bess finds she cannot simply leave, and the longer she stays, the more deeply she embroils herself in the family’s dark past and the Grahams’ willingness to keep those secrets buried.
I joined Jennifer from Book Club Girl in her Bess Crawford Readalong because I am so caught up in World War I. As you saw in last week’s post about Maisie Dobbs, it’s a time period that changed the world in many ways, so I couldn’t wait to get started with the story of Bess Crawford.
Also, I cannot help but discuss Maisie when I discuss Bess. I like them for two completely different reasons. Maisie must work hard for her position, and she has dealt with quite a lot in her young life. Though Bess comes from a much different background, the war equalizes. Bess is afforded no special treatment as the daughter of a high-ranking officer, and she doesn’t expect it. Neither is she a professional detective. Instead, it is the sense of duty instilled in Bess that causes her to poke and prod in order to find out the truth.
And prod she must. The Grahams have a secret they are intent on taking to their respective graves, and that secret has made them an unpleasant lot. Mrs. Graham buries her head in the sand and won’t really discuss the situation with Bess, but she poses leading questions, trying to ascertain if Bess knows anything about the family. There’s a mysterious brother, Peregrine, who is in a nearby asylum and who, during Bess’s stay, takes ill. The family seems, again, indifferent. The two remaining brothers, Timothy and Jonathan, are brusque to the point of rudeness, and when Bess is called on to help the local doctor whose patient has a bad case of shell shock, they make horrible comments insinuating the man needs to “deal with it” and get back to normal.
What’s so great about Bess? Bess is so easy to relate to. She isn’t a professional, and because of that, she isn’t always 100% sure of herself in terms of digging. She is certainly confident in herself and her abilities, but she also admits when she’s stumped/unsettled/needs help. She feels bound by duty, which is easy to understand in a family whose code is honor.
Why does she stay with the Grahams? By all rights, the Grahams are pretty miserable people to be around. They keep Bess around when they need her, and when she’s no longer useful, they give her the boot. As I mentioned, she stays because it’s her duty, but I think she also had strong feelings for Arthur. The more she’s around her family, the more she realizes she really didn’t know him at all, and it helps her to heal a bit.
Why should anyone start this series? Well, I’ll go ahead and admit that I quickly read every Bess Crawford book once I finished this one. I couldn’t stop, and the further into the series, the more you see the face of the Great War and how it affected everyone involved. Several of the books follow Bess to the front, and the writing is very evocative. Plus, the idea of “leave” is so interesting. Mostly when you think of war, you think of soldiers down in the trenches from start to finish. “Leave” seems an odd part of war, though I can certainly see why it was necessary. And in the latest Bess Crawford, I think there might be romance brewing down the line, which is something that the Maisie series gives out only sparingly.
One last thing to note: I’ve read on goodreads that many people are turned off the Maisie Dobbs series because of the sort of “otherworldliness” of Maisie’s training from Maurice, and it can be a bit much to take in – her intuition is much more literal than most mean the term, and her odd quirks seem to turn some readers off. I will say that Bess is much more accessible because she is amateur and also because her methods are more straightforward. So. If you aren’t a Maisie fan, it does not mean you won’t like Bess. Quite the opposite, really.
Any takers? Or have you read any Charles Todd before? Should I try the Ian Rutledge series?