cover image Flight of the Wild Swan

Flight of the Wild Swan

Melissa Pritchard. Bellevue, $18.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-954276-21-5

Pritchard’s splendid latest illuminates the life of Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) by portraying the idiosyncratic woman behind the Victorian icon. When Florence is a teen, her mother judges her “aloof” and “obstinate,” while her father appreciates her intellect. At 16, Florence believes she hears God charging her to end the world’s suffering. Her landed gentry parents reject her pleas to study nursing, however, as they consider the work to be squalid and menial. Florence spends a decade of forced inaction in deepening despair before she attempts suicide and her parents relent. By 30, she’s a seasoned medical administrator who calls sanitation, hygiene, and statistics her “Earthly deities.” Meanwhile, Britain is fighting Russia in the Crimea, where injured British soldiers face horrific conditions. Florence’s friend Sidney Herbert, Britain’s secretary of war, authorizes her to lead a contingent of nurses—the first women nurses for the British armed forces—to reform a military hospital near Constantinople. She arrives in 1854 to find the building rotting, the men in charge contemptuous, and hospital supplies insufficient to meet the seemingly endless stream of maimed soldiers, many dying of diseases rather than battlefield injuries. The novel’s brief scenes are both vividly intimate and wide-angled enough to capture the complexity of Florence’s life and times. Pritchard excels in this marvelous and moving work. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Mar.)