The main problem was her hands. ~ Opening of The Fire by Night
The Fire by Night by Teresa Messineo
William Morrow, 2017
Fiction (Historical); 336 pgs
My dad’s interest in World War II history rubbed off on me, and I find myself continuously drawn to that time period. When I first heard about Teresa Messineo’s The Fire by Night, I knew I had to read it. Not just because of the time period, but also because it is the story of two military nurses, deep in the trenches.
The two best friends met in nursing school, coming from entirely different backgrounds. Jo McMahon grew up in the tenements of Brooklyn. Kay Elliott grew up in idyllic small town Pennsylvania. They both volunteered to serve in the war, believing in the cause and their country.
Kay Elliott was sent in the Pacific in 1942, newly married and optimistic. The realities of war came crashing down on her the deeper into the war she got. Forced to surrender to the Japanese, Kay spent years in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp, where the prisoners made up of Allied men, women and children lived in the direst of conditions. Starvation being the death of many of them.
In 1945, Jo McMahon was waiting to leave her war-torn camp in France when the convoy was destroyed, leaving Jo and six of their patients to fend for themselves as best they can, surrounded by the enemy. Jo swears she will see all of her patients get out alive, even if it means going to drastic measures to save them.
Teresa Messineo paints a very realistic and raw portrait of what life must have been like for nurses in Jo and Kay’s positions. She weaves well her research and history into the time period really bringing it to life.
Both Kay and Jo feel helpless, and struggle with wanting to give up or go on. For Kay, being so cut off from the rest of the world, dealing with grief and loss, and not knowing whether she will ever survive the camp, all she has is her role as a nurse. The crying of a baby is a reminder of who she is and keeps her going despite all odds. In Europe, Jo has grown numb, no longer feeling much of anything. She goes through the motions, not really caring if she lives or dies.
While both women’s stories were extremely compelling, Jo’s seemed to get more of the focus. Her determination to keep her patients alive is as much for their sake as it is for hers—it is what ultimately keeps her going when all hope seems lost. I came to really care for Jo and each of her patients, getting to know a little about each one. Jo finds herself drawn particularly to one of them, his life teetering on the edge throughout the book.
I really appreciated the depth that the author goes into with her two heroines. In many ways, this is a character driven novel that delves into the impact war had on these two women— both during and after. My heart ached for both women, the tension high in each of their circumstances, wondering if they would survive—wondering how they could survive. It was obvious they would have scars if they did, and Messineo pulls no punches in that regard either.
As of late it seems like the historical fiction I read set in this time period, involving female leads, is on the lighter side. Yes, the books tackle some serious issues, but they are more on the surface, often with a strong romance element as a side story—or even the focal point. While there is a bit of romance in The Fire by Night, it never overshadows the personal sacrifices and journey of the two main characters. It really is a part of the women’s stories in a way that makes it more real and highlights the sacrifices made during the war. Nor is this a particularly light novel that sticks only to the surface of the war. It really does get into the worst of it: the devastation, the terror, the misogyny, and the emotional impact war has on one’s psyche.
If I have one complaint about the novel, it would be that I would like to have seen Kay and Jo’s stories come together a bit more by the end. The tie of friendship between the two connected the stories, but the two narratives, which alternated with each chapter, seemed to remain separate from one another even in the end with a minor tie in. Even so, the way each of their stories ended seemed very fitting given their circumstances, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
The Fire by Night is at once a heartbreaking novel about a time in our history which is often romanticized, but which here is shown in a much more realistic light. I have such admiration for the real life Jo’s and Kay’s who served in the war. Their contribution to the war effort was invaluable and they deserve much more attention and accolades then they have received.
To learn more about Teresa Messineo and her work, please visit the author on Facebook.
I hope you will check out what others had to say about The Fire by Night on the TLC Book Tours route!
Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Review copy provided by publisher for an honest review.
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