This past week, as the anniversary of its conclusion rolled around again, you no doubt heard a great deal about the First World War. Most of the commentary and retrospectives focused on the decisive (or not so decisive) battles, and the soldiers who served. But there’s a fascinating other layer to the events of World War I, and one that we seldom hear much about: the medical personnel staffing the field hospitals, many of whom were young volunteers.
Ellen Gable’s excellent new historical romance novel, Ella’s Promise, takes us inside that world. It’s the third and final installment in her “Great War-Great Love” series (here is my review of the first novel in that series). It’s a wonderful story, and an engrossing read. I began reading it at the start of a four hour flight, and couldn’t put it down; I finished it shortly before landing. As soon as I was allowed to use my phone, I dashed off a note to the author telling her how much I enjoyed it.
And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like romance novels! That’s in part due to this story being so much more than a romance. Yes, boy meets girl. Yes, boy loses girl. And, yes, boy gets girl back. But all of these plot points and developments are tied up with events unfolding in connection with the war, including Allied espionage operations. Ella’s love interest, Garrett, is a Canadian intelligence officer. He’s of German descent, and speaks German fluently, so is a natural for the role. We get to follow him as he infiltrates the enemy ranks, risks getting exposed, and finds himself in a position of great peril.
Ella herself is an American, and had significant medical training before the war. She spends much of the early part of the story frustrated that she isn’t allowed to put these skills to greater use. The way she ultimately “proves herself,” and manages to turn the tables on those who were trying to keep her locked in a lower level role, makes for some truly wonderful reading.
Like Garrett, Ella is also of German descent, and also fluent in the language. Interestingly, her family expressed some qualms about her going to France and working against their mother country. She insists she’s not there to support the war efforts of any particular country, or even of any particular side. She volunteers for one reason only: to help persons who need it, regardless of nationality. She’s determined to stay out of the Allies’ larger strategic operations, refusing even to use her language skills to listen in on (and report back about) the conversations of enemy soldiers in her care. Her challenge is to remain true to herself, while assuring others that she’s not an enemy sympathizer. As the story unfolds, and her relationship with Garrett grows deeper, she is forced to make more difficult decisions about her role, and what she is willing to do to support the Allied effort.
As an avid cyclist, I was fascinated by one smallish detail in the plot: the use of an innovative, folding bicycle captured from the Germans. (Being able to fold it up made it easier for transport on a vehicle.) I’d never heard of these bicycles before, so I enjoyed learning about how they operated and were put to use. I’m hoping I get to see one in a museum someday.
I should mention that Ella’s Promise is a clean and wholesome story. The courtship is chaste, with the characters observing the social conventions of the time about appropriate behavior.
One other thing I should note: although the book is part of a series, it stands on its own as a story. You don’t need to have read the other two novels to appreciate this one (and I haven’t even been able to read the second one yet). Each novel focuses on a different female volunteer, with the “non focus” volunteers playing supporting roles. For example, Ella appeared in Julia’s Gifts, as one of Julia’s friends, but there’s nothing critical about her from that story that you need to know for this one. Likewise, you’ll appreciate Julia’s appearance in the current story more if you’ve read the first novel, but there is nothing from that novel which is essential to the plot of this one.
The bottom line is that Ella’s Promise is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it very much. I can’t believe I missed the second book in the series. I’m going to have to go back and rectify that as soon as I can.