The last thing eighteen-year-old Wilhelmina “Willa” MacCarthy wants is to be a nun. It’s 1936, and as the only daughter amongst four sons, her Irish–Catholic family is counting on her to take her vows—but Willa’s found another calling. Each day she sneaks away to help Doctor Katherine Winston in her medical clinic in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
Keeping secrets from her family only becomes more complicated when Willa agrees to help the doctor at a field hospital near the new bridge being built over the Golden Gate. Willa thinks she can handle her new chaotic life, but as she draws closer to a dashing young ironworker and risks grow at the bridge, she discovers that hiding from what she truly wants may be her biggest lie of all.
Willa McCarthy has known for much of her life that her life is not her own. As the only daughter of a large Irish-Catholic family, it is Willa’s duty and responsibility to honor the family by taking vows to become a nun. What’s more, even if Willa wanted to escape her duty and responsibility, her family has made it clear, that isn’t an option and certainly not the actions of a good girl.
For Willa, the prospect of taking vows and living out the remainder of her life trapped inside a convent is nothing short of a prison sentence. Though Willa believes in God, she knows He hasn’t called her to service as a nun. What’s more, Willa truly believes her calling is to medicine, but to travel that road would not only disappoint her parents but likely see her shunned by her family. Since she encountered her first medical textbook, Willa has been fascinated with the subject and spends every available moment not just reading the text, but studying, learning, and memorizing. To become a doctor would require tremendous sacrifice, time, effort, and money, and Willa just isn’t sure those options are available to her.
Dr. Katherine Winston isn’t your average doctor. Above all else, she is a woman working in a predominately male world and struggles each and every day to be accepted among her peers. She has fought tooth and nail, at great personal cost for her position and her practice and she isn’t going to let it all slip away. Meeting Willa and seeing her enthusiasm for medicine bolsters Dr. Winston and encourages her to ask Willa to work alongside her as an apprentice of sorts. Though working with Dr. Winston will require no small amount of lies and deceptions, Willa is thrilled with the opportunity. As Dr. Winston believes in a teaching by doing method, it isn’t long before Willa is up to her elbows in all manner of illnesses and injuries. The work is exhilarating and exhausting but ever so worth it every time a patient leaves the practice feeling better.
Each day with Dr. Winston is a gift Willa feels has a very short life expectancy. Willa is so very torn between two worlds, her work with Dr. Winston and her duty and responsibility as a member of her family. To work with Dr. Winston means Willa is making a difference in the world, but it also means she is constantly and consistently lying to her family, hiding from them a vital part of her existence. As it happens, Willa’s secret doesn’t remain so for long. As a part of her work with Dr. Winston, Willa is often called to the small clinic set up for injuries incurred while work on the Golden Gate Bridge is being completed. The work is exciting, often dangerous, and always comes with the risk of Willa being found out by brothers who work on the bridge. As with working in the clinic, the risk is well worth the reward and every day, every incident, every injury teaches Willa something more about medicine and where her heart truly lies.
The Bottom Line: Historical fiction has long been a favored genre for me, and this book certainly fit the bill. I make a habit of reading the author’s notes when the genre is historical fiction and I was glad to read just how much of this book is based on reality. Every character, even the purely fictional characters, read as perfectly authentic and real. The setting is brilliantly described yet not so much that the landscape and setting take over the story. From beginning to end there is a very real sense of dread and danger, dread that Willa will be found out and danger from the bridge building to the consequences of Willa’s actions. Enhancing the truly fascinating medical side of the story is the very real family and romantic situations Willa finds herself a part of. This story really does have something for everyone and is an excellent example of what historical fiction should be. I have high hopes for Amy Trueblood and look forward to her next historical offering.