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Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas

Three very different girls sign up as student nurses in 1936, while England is still mourning the death of George V. Dora is a tough East Ender, driven by ambition, but also desperate to escape her squalid, overcrowded home and her abusive stepfather. Helen is the quiet one, a mystery to her fellow nurses, avoiding fun, gossip and the limelight. In fact she is in the formidable shadow of her overbearing mother, who dominates every aspect of her life. Can a nursing career free Helen at last? The third of our heroines is naughty, rebellious Millie an aristocrat on the run from her conventional upper class life. She is doomed to clash over and over again with terrifying Sister Hyde and to get into scrape after scrape especially where men are concerned.
This utterly delightful novel brings a London pre-war hospital vividly to life.

Donna Douglas is a very successful author of contemporary romance novels, written under the name of Donna Hay.   The Nightingale Girls is her first historical novel,  the first of a planned trilogy and was published by Arrow Books at Random House on 16 August.

The Nightingale Girls of the title are the students of the fictional Florence Nightingale Teaching Hospital, situated in London's East End, the story starts in the 1930s.  

The story centres around three of the students; Dora, Helen and Millie.  Three very different girls, with different backgrounds, different experiences but brought together by their shared mission - to become nurses.

Dora is an East End girl from a poor, working-class district. She is not the usual Nightingale student and is often looked down on by some of the other students.   She is from tough stock and has battled hard to get away from home, and more importantly, to get away from her step-father.

Helen is quiet and studious, and known as a tell-tale.  The other girls don't trust her one bit - her formidable Mother is a Trustee of the Hospital and governs both the staff and her own daughter with a rod of iron.

Millie is an aristocrat, the much-loved daughter of her doting father.  Carefree and often flippant, there are not many people who believe that she will ever qualify as a nurse.

Donna Douglas
Thrown together during training, these three girls form an unlikely alliance, slowly opening up to each as they battle through 14 hour days, stripping beds and washing out bedpans.  On their feet all day, in heavy uniforms and uncomfortable shoes - at the beck and call of the Sister of the ward, and treated as the lowest of the low.

Donna Douglas has created three captivating characters, full of warmth and fun, pain and sadness and honesty.  Her meticulous research into the lives of student nurses in the 1930s shines through into this story, making it a compelling read.  

As a small girl, I never dreamed of becoming a nurse, and as an adult I have spent a fair amount of time as a patient and have the greatest admiration for the nursing profession.  Times can be hard nowadays, but 80 years ago their lives seemed almost unbearable.  No talking to men, no late nights, never speak unless you are spoken to...... and the list goes on.

Despite the hardship and the drudgery, this novel captures the youthful fun side of the students, it is packed with stories from the ward, mishaps and cover ups, impossible patients, arrogant doctors and self-important management.

Each of the students also have their own story, and these are what really made me love this novel. The three girls and their families, and their past are woven into the tales of the hospital wonderfully.

The Nightingale Girls is a joy to read, a real treasure.  I am looking forward to hearing more about Dora, Helen and Millie in the second book of the series.

Donna Douglas has a website and blog here, she is also on Twitter, and Facebook.

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