She had her entire life planned until the Great War began and everything changed.
April 1914. Barrie, Ontario. Hettie Steward is feisty, educated, ambitious and stubborn. Her fiancé, Geoffrey Bartlette, the love of her life since childhood, has been a patient man. He waited while she attended nursing school and worked a year, but now it is time to wed. While Hettie is thrilled to be starting her life with Geoffrey, she laments that marriage means sacrificing her beloved nursing career, and domestic life brings her nothing but drudgery and boredom.
When the Great War begins a few months into their marriage, Geoffrey enlists and persuades Hettie to join the Canadian Army Nursing Service and follow him overseas. After all, everyone says the war will be short, and it will be their opportunity to have a proper honeymoon. Returning to work is exactly what Hettie was craving, and she eager accepts.
The war, however, does not end quickly. Soon tragedy strikes, proving true the old adage “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Geoffrey is killed at the Second Battle of Ypres, and Hettie is faced with a choice. Return home or stay in Europe and continue nursing? Moreover, will she discover the person she is meant to be now that her life has been steered onto a new path?
Angel of Mercy is the first in a trilogy following Hettie and her family as they navigate the challenges and heartbreak World War 1 brings.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Angel of Mercy was inspired by the song Mama by My Chemical Romance. The song begins and ends with the sounds of a bombardment that remind me of World War One.
While the song is full of imagery related to war killing off mothers’ sons, it also became the inspiration for several characters. The song's narrator became Geoffrey in the novel with Mama as his mother. The lines “And when you go don't return to me, my love” and “If you can coddle the infection they can amputate at once” were the inspiration for Hettie who is a nurse.
Indeed, all the characters in the novel were indirectly inspired by the song as they are all doomed to their fate: “We're damned after all. Through fortune and flame we fall.”
The album the song is on, The Black Parade, was inspirational in other ways as well. The lyrics in the liner notes look very similar to an old newspaper, with several articles lined up in neat columns. Even the parade outfits the band used for the album and its subsequent tour, have an early 20th-century vibe.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The lines “If you could coddle the infection. They can amputate at once.” from the song Mama became the inspiration for the novel’s main character, Hettie, who is a nurse. From there, I worked on developing Hettie, creating a story for her, a personality and family. Many of those family members also appear in the story.
“Today is August 5,” Hettie said, marking the day off the calendar. “That means we’ve been married 75 days.”
Hettie’s voice sounded foreign and loud. She was alone, having gotten into the habit of talking to herself to alleviate her loneliness, yet she had not grown accustomed to the sound of her own voice. The hair stood up on her arms.
A day like today would be an opportune time to visit Mabel, but circumstances had conspired against Hettie. Mabel was pregnant now, and her over-protective husband, Gardner, would not allow her to exert herself in any way, believing activity of any kind was harmful, and he did not permit Mabel to go out or entertain visitors.
“That means it’s been 76 days since I was last at Royal Victoria.”
One vulnerable afternoon, Hettie had made the mistake of venting to Mother and was told she had electricity, central heat and running water — which Mother didn’t have in her first home — and, therefore, had no right to complain. Mother’s words, though, were mostly exaggeration. She never had to struggle much, even in the early days of marriage. Father’s inheritance had been generous, allowing the family to live a life without worry while still pursuing their own interests.
Mother was protected from being subjected to the daily labors most of her peers endured because she had the help of the family’s housekeeper, Mrs. Norris. With Hettie’s marriage, Mother had four children left at home, whom she was trying to mold and guide, and also her customary social rounds to make, and those were the most stringent of her daily activities.
“Okay, groceries, I suppose you aren’t going to put yourselves away. If only you could.”
Hettie glowered at her adversary, a basket of groceries sitting on the kitchen table. This morning, she had struggled to carry the basket up the three flights of stairs to the apartment and had almost dropped it twice. It was as if the basket was taunting her now, daring her to put everything into the cupboards. Beside the basket sat her housekeeping account book, still open to the page where she recorded today’s purchases. There was little left in the budget to cover any more expenses.
Geoffrey knew nothing of Hettie’s dissatisfaction. She had refrained from mentioning it to him, even in passing, for fear she would inadvertently give him the impression that he was at fault, that perhaps she regretted marrying him because he failed to give her the type of home she was accustomed. She was content with Geoffrey himself. His presence put her nerves at ease and calmed her mind, but when he was away, she wished she were anywhere else. How could she explain that to him without reinforcing his belief that he wasn’t good enough for her?
Hettie examined the figures in her accounting book as if somehow the numbers could have changed.
“I mustn’t forget to order more ice. It can’t be avoided in this weather.”
Hettie looked out the window before adjusting the table fan in a futile attempt to bring in a cool breeze. People seemed more energetic than usual, their pace more hurried, their voices more boisterous. She wondered if something had happened or if it was just her imagination.
“Maybe Geoffrey’s heard something at the office and will tell me when he comes home.”
She returned back to her drudgery and the pile of clothing on the sitting-room floor.
“Geoffrey’s work shirts need starched. My dress needs ironed. Those need washed. Is housework going to be my entire lot in life until the end of my days?”
The building had no washing machine, so she could only do a few pieces at a time. She had to scrub laundry in the bathtub, wring it out and then either lug it outside to hang on the clothesline or hang it by the stove to dry.
Her houseplants sat on the windowsill above the kitchen radiator looking parched. She watered them while watching the street below.
“What is going on down there?” she said, this time to the plants. “You know, it could be my imagination getting the better of me. If it is, won’t I feel silly. Geoffrey will be home soon enough. I could just wait and ask him. And the laundry needs done. But if I go buy a newspaper, it’ll settle this at once.”
She turned around and spotted her accounts book. There was scant money left for frivolous things, and a newspaper was by no means a necessity, but there was definitely something different about today.
Soon Hettie was stepping onto Owen Street and tipping her face upwards to feel the sun on her skin. She inhaled deeply and her nostrils were met with the stink of manure mingled with exhaust fumes, but it didn’t matter. It was wonderful being outside, among the town’s other inhabitants. She took a moment to savor this, and then remembered why she was outside in the first place – the newspaper. As she made her way to the end of the street, she caught bits and pieces of people’s conversations but not enough to tell what, if anything, was happening. When she passed one building, a dog began barking, and in front of another, the scratching noises of broom bristles being swept across the sidewalk caused Hettie to shudder. She quickened her pace, and, finding a place to cross, found a newsboy standing on the corner of Owen and Worsley.
“War declared!” she heard him say over the din.
Again she shuddered, and the dog’s barking somehow seemed prophetic as if it had been warning her not to go any further, not to pursue her curiosity because she’d be sorry if she did.
The newsboy shouted again. “Canada joins the war!”
Hettie purchased a copy, and a furrow appeared in her brow as she read the headline and subheads. GREAT BRITAIN DECARES WAR ON GERMANY! OFFICIAL DECLARATION CAME LAST NIGHT. CANADIANS OFFER TO SERVE.
Her heart began to race. Simply because Britain had declared war on Germany didn’t automatically mean Canada had to, or at least that’s what Father would argue, because in reality, being a Dominion of the Empire did mean Canada had no choice. The only freedom the government had was determining the nation’s level of involvement.
For some unknown reason, she felt nauseated. No one she knew was in the permanent force; there barely was a permanent force. There was a much larger militia, but she didn’t know anyone involved in the militia either. She had no cause for worry, she told herself, yet this did not calm her sour stomach.
Someone whistled, and Hettie nearly dropped her newspaper. A man was waving his hat in the air, motioning for others to join him. He, too, purchased a paper and hoisted it high above his head.
“We’ll thrash those Heinies and make them regret the day they stepped foot into Belgium.”
Two other men shouted in agreement.
“God save the King.”
This brought both cheers and applause.
As Hettie stood motionless, the man began parading down the street, shouting patriotic pronouncements that were met with smiles, applause and the occasional shout. When he began singing “Rule Britannia,” it didn’t take long for others to join him.
People are actually happy about this? she thought as goosebumps covered her body. They’re happy we’re at war?
She watched until she could no longer tolerate it, then hurried home. Once there, she tossed the newspaper, its pages slightly damp from her clammy palms, onto the kitchen table and thought of Father. Benjamin Steward was proud of his heritage, but he believed Canada had been a Dominion long enough to decide what was best for it and its territories. He would certainly think this was the worst news possible.
“You’re the one who had to know what was going on,” she said. “You had to know, and now you do know and it’s unthinkable. It can’t be undone. What am I going to do?”
Hettie wiped her shaking hands on her skirt.
“Calm yourself. You can’t stand here glaring at the paper willing the headline to change. Do something. Do something!”
Hettie turned on her heel and left the apartment, this time so quickly she didn’t even lock the door. After 15 minutes of wandering downtown, Hettie found herself in front of Gregsen’s Motorcars, Trucks and Trolleys. She lingered on the sidewalk for a moment examining the building as if she’d never seen it before. Gregsen’s name was on the storefront sign, but “Walter Steward, manager” was painted in bold lettering on a smaller sign beside the front door.
All the windows and doors were open, letting in what little breeze could come through, and allowing the wham of metal on metal and the roar of engines to drift outside. One man dropped a wretch, and it hit the cement floor with a clang causing some of his coworkers to tease him about being unable to keep his grip. Hettie came closer and saw a Russell among the cars being repaired and remembered Walter saying they constantly had problems with sleeve valves malfunctioning, whatever sleeve values were. The Russell was beside a Ford with a bent rim, which she recognized as Walter’s best friend’s car, his chum the speed racer.
Look at the damage. He’s going to get himself killed one day, she thought then remembered they were at war and shook her head. There will be no more talk about anyone dying. Not today.
Hettie entered the garage, hitching up her skirt and walking on her tiptoes as she made her way to the back offices. The grease monkeys, their clothing and hair streaked with oil and petrol and reeking strongly of sweat and fumes, whistled at her as she passed. She ignored them, focused on her destination.
Walter was standing in his office studying a ledger and comparing the figures to a stack of papers in the corner of his desk. He was in stark contrast to his employees and looked to Hettie as if he’d just stepped out of a catalogue illustration. He was wearing a spotless pair of tan trousers and a waistcoat, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows and his jacket over the back of his chair.
Hettie smiled and stood outside the open office door, observing him for a moment. When he didn’t notice her, she knocked.
Walter jumped slightly before lifting his head. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you. Is something wrong with that?”
“No, not at all.” Walter furrowed his brow for a moment. “Dorothea and I would be happy to have you join us for dinner sometime if it’s a visit you want.”
He placed emphasis on the phrase “if it’s a visit you want,” and Hettie knew he was aware she had come for a reason other than she missed him.
“We would be delighted,” Hettie said.
They both sat and looked at one another for a moment.
Hettie continue to smile, but it slowly faded. “Has Father heard the news?”
“I imagine so.”
“He can’t be very happy.”
Walter laughed. “Does it matter? We won’t have to hear about it.”
“It doesn’t concern you at all? Mother and our younger siblings will sustain the brunt of Father’s fury.”
Walter waved his hand toward the office window. “Maybe you should go bother Freddie about this. After all, it’ll affect him more than us. He always has time for you and your imagination. He always agrees with you. He —”
“Walter! We are at war. There are people who are happy about it. Why are they?”
“You know as much about the subject as I do. Father saw to that. Okay, you want my opinion? Honestly, I don’t think there is anything to be concerned about. This is a European war; our involvement will be purely symbolic. And even if there is something of concern, don’t involve yourself with politics. You don’t have the vote, so you can’t change a damn thing. What does Geoffrey think of all this?”
Hettie inhaled sharply. “I don’t know. We haven’t spoken since this morning.”
“Well, perhaps you should find out.” Walter looked down at his ledger and picked up a pen. “You really shouldn’t be here, Hettie. This is no place for a well-bred woman. Go home before something happens.”
Hettie crossed her arms, her brother’s dismissal of her concerns making her cheeks burn. She wanted to yell at him, to cause a scene, but all she could force herself to do was excuse herself and begin the walk home.
“I can’t believe Walter,” she said then glanced over her shoulder to make sure no passersby heard her pronouncement. “Since when has this been the case? That a husband’s views and opinions are the same as his wife’s views and opinions?”
She huffed and silenced herself. We weren’t raised to think that way. Father and Mother disagree all the time. Never once has Mother turned to him and said, “How should I feel about this?” or, worse, asked, “How do you want me to feel about this?” Why does Walter assume I should do that with Geoffrey? Is that what Dorothea does with him? That seems very unlikely.
By the time Hettie returned home, the entire apartment felt like an oven. She turned on the fan then plopped onto the sofa, tears of frustration beginning to form in her eyes. The laundry was never touched, and the ice delivery was never scheduled. She would have to do both tasks tomorrow because now it was time to start dinner.
The newspaper still sat on the kitchen table. She stood, grabbed it and tossed it into the cupboard. Tears were streaming down her face, and she wiped them away. Geoffrey could not see them. He could not know what sort of afternoon it had been.
Geoffrey was, if nothing else, predictable and reliable. Today’s dinner, like every other dinner since their marriage, followed the same pattern. Geoffrey recapped his day with statements Hettie almost could quote verbatim. First he complained about the dullness of his duties and the egos of his employers followed by gratitude that he had a position which supported them and put food on their table. Then he always praised his dinner, even though Hettie thought the meals were mediocre, and told her he was happy to be home with her.
Hettie, for the most part, was equally reliable. She greeted him at the door every evening with a squeeze and a lingering kiss. His presence was a respite from her otherwise unbearable days. With him home, she no longer had to talk to herself to break the silence. There was life and love in the apartment; it seemed like a different place, a place where she could imagine her future as a happy one, even without Royal Victoria in it.
Tonight, however, Hettie was expecting a break from the norm.
“This is the most wonderful pork chop I’ve ever had,” Geoffrey said. “And I’ve had plenty of wonderful pork chops.”
“Thank you, Sweetheart. I’m happy you’re enjoying it.”
Hettie passed him more butter sauce for his carrots and waited. Surely someone in the office must have said something about the governor general’s declaration, or Geoffrey must have passed a newsboy on the way home or heard gossip or something. The war wasn’t, after all, a well-kept secret. It was front-page news.
Geoffrey said nothing. Hettie leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and propping her chin on her hands. She sucked on her lips then pushed them forward, hoping they were plump and red. Still Geoffrey still did not react. He didn’t even seem to notice, so she waited for a response that never came.
Eventually, she inhaled sharply. “Did you hear about war being declared?”
“I did.” Geoffrey wiped his mouth on his napkin but didn’t bother making eye contact.
She slipped off her shoe and began running her foot along the length of his calf. At last, he lifted his head and met her gaze.
“Why are you pouting, Sunshine? What is it that you want?”
“I want to know what you think about it so we can discuss it.”
He looked down at his dinner. “I don’t know enough about it to form an opinion.”
Hettie put back on her shoe. Walter told me to get my husband’s opinion yet Geoffrey doesn’t have an opinion. So by this logic am I also not supposed to have one? “How could you not have an opinion? I’m always full of opinions, brimming with opinions.”
“I know you are. You and your mother are probably the most opinionated women I know. What does your father call you? An independent minded female?” Geoffrey resumed eye contact. “I’ll read the newspapers in the next few days and then I’ll let you know.”
In the next few days? Perhaps I will go visit Father tomorrow and have a conversation with someone who values opinions and the need for discussion. She feigned a smile and leaned back. “All right.”
So there it was. She would have to wait days for a simple opinion on whether he thought the war was justified. They finished dinner in silence and when her plate was empty, Hettie went to the sink and began filling the dish pan.
“I’m sorry to have upset you,” Geoffrey said. “You were too young to really know my father well, but he taught us not to form opinions or question anything. You accept things as they are.”
Hettie turned to face him, hand on her hip. “Why was that?”
“You wouldn’t have liked my father had you known him the way I did. He behaved differently in public than he did at home. He treated Mama badly and blamed her for all our problems. He worked as much as he could, not only because it was his duty to do so but because he didn’t want to be around us. I told myself that if I ever had a wife and family, I would treat them with respect.”
As her cheeks began to feel warm, Hettie turned back to the sink and did not respond. Geoffrey’s father had died when Hettie was fourteen. All she knew was he was the father of the Bartlette children and the husband of her mother’s closest friend and that he had worked at the ice house. I wonder what “blamed her for all our problems” means, especially since Geoffrey didn’t give any details. Did Mr. Bartlette lay hands on Mrs. Bartlette? Did he cause her injury?
As Hettie washed dishes, she could hear the ruffling of pages and knew Geoffrey had begun reading the newspaper. She bit her lip, a habit when stressed, and forced herself to keep on task and not demand to know his thoughts. Eventually, she heard a plop as he threw the paper down on the table followed by the scrape of his chair on the wooden floor.
“When you’re finished, let’s go for a walk by the bay. We need to clear our heads.”
Hettie smiled. “Yes, let’s go. It’s been the longest time, it seems, since we’ve been to the bay and summer is already half over. Pretty soon, we’ll look back and say, ‘where has all the time gone?’”
“We’ll get ice cream and enjoy the sunset.”
Hettie’s smile faded slightly when she remembered their budget and the figures in her accounting book. “Ice cream? Do you have an appetite for it?”
Geoffrey put his arms around her waist and kissed her neck. “As you say, summer is half over. We might as well enjoy it while we can. You never know what might happen.”
“What might happen?” Hettie felt a pins and needles feeling envelop her and held her breath.
“Well, yes. Before long, you might find yourself in Mabel’s position.”
“Oh, of course.” Hettie laughed and the pins and needles feeling dissipated. She turned her head and kissed Geoffrey. “It’ll happen when it’s meant to be.”
“I can be patient. God decides these things, not us, anyway.”
“Of course. Maybe we’ll see Freddie and Posie, and if they are there, we can go for a boat ride.”
Geoffrey gave her a playful swat on the rear. “Well, hurry up then. It’ll be just like old times, when we had not a care in the world.”
The headline on Saturday read ENLISTMENT BEGUN. CANADIANS TO BE SENT TO THE FRONT.
The newspaper was within sight as Hettie prepared Sunday breakfast, but she purposefully kept it out of her gaze. Despite the ominous news, there were more important things going on closer to home. Her sister Alice’s sixteenth birthday was next week and she had squirreled away a portion of her final paycheck from Royal Victoria to purchase a gift. But what would Alice like for a milestone birthday? A hair comb, perfume, face powder?
Geoffrey entered the room. “Good morning, Sunshine. You rose earlier than me this morning.”
“I couldn’t sleep. You know how picky Alice is, and I need to buy the perfect gift or she’ll never forgive me.”
“Alice will be all right. She doesn’t realize how privileged she is.” Geoffrey paused and cleared his throat. “Hettie, I read all of the newspapers multiple times, and I made a decision about the war and my views on it. I feel compelled to enlist.”
Hettie dropped her spatula into the eggs she had been preparing. “No, no, Sweetheart. You’re joking. This is a bad a joke. Geoffrey, it’s not funny, especially an hour before church.”
“Hettie, it’s not a joke. It’s true. This is what my father would want me to do.”
The pins and needles feeling that had become so familiar over the past few days returned. “But you said your father was a horrible person, and you didn’t want to be anything like him.”
“He was horrible to his family, yes, but he knew how do be dutifully and patriotic. I have to do this for my country, our country.”
Hettie shook her head and inhaled sharply. She held up a finger, not knowing what to say. “Wait. What? I don’t understand.”
He responded, but she didn’t hear a word he said. Her hands began to shake and she felt faint. This is my fault. I prodded him for his opinion, encouraged him to read the papers. But how did I know this was going to happen? All I wanted was his opinion, not to spur him into action. She knew she should say something but when her mouth opened, nothing came out.
Finally, she said, “No, I can’t let you do this. This war is wrong. This is not our fight.”
“I can see your father influences you the same way mine influences me. It is up to each individual to decide whether the war is justified, and I want to be part of it. That’s my final decision. I won’t be swayed. When you went away to nursing school, I supported that decision, didn’t I, even though I would have rather have married four years ago. I’ll do this without you but I’d rather do it with you.”
“Geoffrey!” Hettie took a step toward him as the odor of burning eggs filled the apartment. “How can I support this?”
Geoffrey headed back toward the bedroom. “You’ll have to find a way.”
She ran to him and grabbed his arm, tears beginning to swell in her eyes. “Geoffrey. Please. No. You can’t.”
“Then come with me, Hettie, because I’m not changing my mind. Have a chance to work again.”
“To work? What do you mean?”
Geoffrey wiped the tears from her cheeks. “The army nursing service. I know you know what that is and the type of work they do. If you enlist in the army nursing service, you can come with me. What a grand adventure we’ll have together. It won’t be for long. Everyone says this war will be over by Christmas. When the war is over, we’ll stay on the Continent and have our honeymoon. I don’t know of any other way I can give you a honeymoon, Hettie.”
Her heartbeat thumping in her ears, she seemed unable to move. “To work again?”
“Think about it. I don’t need an answer right now, but I’m going to Toronto tomorrow morning, so I will need to know by then.”
Geoffrey excused himself and walked into the bedroom. When he returned, he was dressed for church. Hettie was standing where he left her. She choked down tears. He was so handsome and so full of the fiery energy she always wished he embodied. She smiled meekly, so proud to call him her husband, before giving him a kiss.
“What sort of work do you suppose I’d be doing in the nursing service?”
“I suppose you’d be working in a hospital and doing things similar to what you did at Royal Victoria.”
“Similar to Royal Victoria.” She paused, letting her brain process this almost unbelievable fact. I can be a nurse again?! “And your plan is for us to have a honeymoon?”
“An absolutely perfect honeymoon.”
“Then, yes. Yes, I’ll come if it means—”
She didn’t finish her sentence, but instead threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. Going back to work is exactly what I need, a break from housework and this apartment and my isolation. It’s a great opportunity that will probably never come again. It—
“I’m so happy, Sunshine, that you’re excited about seeing Europe.”
She opened her eyes and focused on the wall. He thinks I’m excited about the honeymoon. I can’t let him know the truth. He won’t understand. It’ll make him unhappy.
Geoffrey looked at the mantle clock. “It’s getting late. We best leave now if we want to make it there in time. I’ll take care of the eggs.”
Hettie pulled away and made eye contact. He was pleased with his decision. What was a few weeks in the army if it meant a lifetime of confidence for him? Maybe this was one of those sacrifices Mother was always mentioning, the kind that were done for the betterment of the family, the kind that were difficult to do initially but had a good end result. Hettie smiled, but her hands again began to shake. Before they left, they would need to face her family, and they would try to stop them.
“I love you, Sweetheart.”
“I love you, too, Sunshine.” Geoffrey pulled her close again. “This will be a decision we won’t soon forget, will we?”
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