Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.
I had heard vaguely of Edith Cavell before reading Kathryn Atwood’s excellent book, Women Heroes of World War I, but Atwood’s book presented her in a more detailed way. Therefore, when I saw this book up on Netgalley, I requested it and got approved.
There are two things about the book that might put some readers off. The first is the length. It is a short book; I read it in less than two hours. The second is that while the book is not a saint’s life, it is also about Cavell’s faith. The second issue might put some readers off, but it is, in many ways, essential because Cavell was who she was because, in part, of her faith. The book isn’t a convert now or die book; it doesn’t bash the faith over the reader’s head; but if you are a rabid anti-deist or atheist, (like Bill Mahr) you might not like it.
Which is a shame really because Edith Cavell does seem to have been one hell of a woman.
Cavell was a nurse in Belgium prior to the outbreak of World War I. Upon the start of the War, she returned to Belgium and stayed there even after Occupation by Germany. She was one of group of people, including several other women, who help smuggle wound soldiers of the Triple Entente out of the area. Naturally, the Germans didn’t like this, and eventually, she was arrested, found guilty, and shot. (This is hardly a spoiler considering the book’s title).
It is too Butcher’s immense credit that while showing the reader that Cavell was a woman of Anglican Faith; she doesn’t make Cavell into a saint. Cavell has flaws, she is human. Butcher does this not by only looking at the reason for why Cavell was sent away to school, but also by looking at some of the evaluations of Cavell by her teachers and superiors. It doesn’t weaken the image of Cavell; in many ways, it strengthens it.
Butcher takes the time to show the reader how Cavell developed as a young girl and woman. She traces, briefly, the lives of Cavell’s parents, connecting that to the woman that Cavell would become. This also allows Butcher to illustrate the society that Cavell grew up in. This is furthered when Butcher looks at Cavell’s love for animals and painters such as Landseer. It isn’t just Cavell that gets painted well; it’s her world.
This background and focus on children ties into Cavell’s decision to work as a nurse. The image of World War I nurses, at least by the American public, is no doubt influenced largely by shows such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Butcher dispels this romantic image. There is no romance in Cavell’s nursing career, just hard work. Butcher details the work before the War, including when Cavell runs the hospital/nursing school where she will save soldiers’ lives.
The rescue aspect of her life story is detailed well, and Butcher does an excellent of job of not letting it overwhelm the other sections of the tale. Included in this section are also accounts of those soldiers Cavell aided. There is an interesting story of a German spy who was sent to the hospital as well.
Butcher handles Cavell’s final days quite well. She doesn’t romanticize the death, most definitely not in the way that it was done for propaganda purposes. While Cavell comes across as determined and somewhat at peace with the sentence, Butcher does not shy away for giving detail that shows Cavell as frightened. Again, this makes Cavell far more heroic.
The 100th anniversary of Cavell’s death is this year, and this book is a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman. It can be read either by adults or children of 12 or older (and this is simply due to vocab).