Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon. G. P. Putnam's Sons - Penguin Group (USA) Inc. March 2009. 384 pp. ISBN #: 9780399155468

Mariella Lingwood and Rosa Barr seem like total opposites in personality, yet there's an alter ego quality readers will slowly begin to appreciate in these complex characters. Mariella thinks of Rosa as possessing "fatal magnetism," and Rosa finds peace in the stability and hidden courage waiting to emerge in her best friend, Mariella. The story begins innocently enough in Mariella's staid, peaceful home where Rosa and her companion, Nora, come to live after being banished by her late stepfather. Mariella is an expert seamstress who gradually is forced to accompany Rosa on her wild, adventurous journeys, to see the uglier side of English factories and their polluted environment where poor laborers are forced to reside. Rosa's goal is to become a nurse, a brave quest in light of the social constraints on such a profession for females in the mid-1800s. She initially attempts to engage Mariella's fiance, Henry Thewell, to teach her all she needs to learn, but her first impulsive, uninvited visit to watch an amputation surgery repulses him and that avenue seems doomed to failure. Romance evolves with several characters, sometimes with the most engaging, innocent progress and others with suggestions of most inappropriate character.

The story builds to a crescendo when Henry and Rosa's brother, Max Stukeley leave for service in the Crimean War. While the press is reporting fabulous victories, Rosa realizes it is her mission to follow them into battle. Rejected by Florence Nightingale's group for lack of training and significant experience, Rosa decides to journey to Europe on her own and find a place for her "destiny." After a very short time, Mariella learns that Henry is very ill and travels to Italy to nurse and comfort him. Her initial visit is shocking in the extreme as she hears something she never would have imagined in a million years. Now Mariella has a new quest, to find Rosa. As she proceeds on this enigmatic search, she serves the British Army with her seamstress skills, keeping accounts of linens and supplies and finally is called to nurse wounded soldiers. The graphic descriptions within this novel of the casualties, deaths, disease and horrors of the British, French, Slovakian and Russian troops is realistically described, giving the reader a brutally honest picture of the Crimean War which gets very little coverage in present media accounts of notable historic battles. The author demonstrates considerable talent in the way she paces the conflicts and reactions to a crescendo. The ending of the novel leaves room for a follow-up as the reader learns what happens to only one of the many characters in dire straits by the last page turned.

An international bestseller since its publication, The Rose of Sebastopol deserves broader publicity and appreciation for this moving account of a significant historical period and its celebration of love and purpose in characters who struggle against and surmount the barriers of social constraints in mid-19th century England and Europe.

Very nicely done, Ms. McMahon!

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