In Baltimore, Maryland, 1944, Tess DeMillo finds herself pregnant and alone. Her only way of escape is to break off her engagement to the love of her life and marry the father of the baby which forces her to leave her hometown and move to Hickory, North Carolina. Married to a complete stranger, she soon discovers that there are deep secrets that her husband keeps from her and her day-to-day life in a small, Southern town as an intrusive outsider weighs on her constantly. When the polio epidemic reaches Hickory, Tess joins the force of the town to erect a hospital in fifty-four hours and save the lives of hundreds of children using her nursing skills. These events provide the backdrop to a moving story about a woman struggling to find her place in life while battling the tragedies that come at both her and the town.
When I first started reading this book, my initial reaction was, “I don’t like Tess. She’s stupid, she makes stupid decisions, and everything bad that happens to her is her fault and she deserves it because she’s stupid.” Just ask my boss. She had to hear about my complaints the entire first half of the book. But as the story progressed I began to, not necessarily “like” Tess as a main character, but I certainly grew to be sympathetic toward her. The people she interacts with along her journey grew on me as well.
Personally, I loved the setting of this novel. I’m from Annapolis, Maryland (about 30 minutes away from Baltimore) and I currently live in Alexander County, North Carolina (about 30 minutes away from Hickory). Both of these places are familiar to me and I was happy to see them both represented in this book.
I don’t think this book was as good as Diane Chamberlain’s “Necessary Lies,” but it still carried the same heavy weight of subject matter. Whether she’s writing about ethical eugenics in the 1960s or interracial marriage in the 1940s, Chamberlain has an amazing talent to draw up all of her readers’ emotions. I give her an A+ for making me angry, sad, and happy all in the same book. I can also appreciate Chamberlain’s extensive research behind the novel. She definitely does her homework when she writes her North Carolina-based historical fiction, researching every aspect she can get her hands on to create the most realistic and believable background for her stories. The fifty-four hour construction of a polio hospital in Hickory really happened, and this story brings that shining miracle of medical history to light.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read the author’s books before and enjoyed them.