A review of In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl

Review by Sara Hodon

In Falling Snow
by Mary-Rose MacColl
Paperback: 464 pages, August 27, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0143123927

With everything that has been written and studied about World War II, it’s sometimes seems that the veterans’ contributions of its predecessor, fought almost twenty-five years earlier, are a bit lost to history. In her American debut novel, In Falling Snow, Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl does her part to make sure this doesn’t happen. The novel is based on the real women who founded and ran the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France during World War I, namely Royaumont, housed in a former abbey a few miles north of Paris–courageous women who faced their own deaths while tending to brave soldiers and pulling them out of the fray.
In Falling Snow is narrated through dual points of view, alternating between first-person for Iris Crane, the protagonist, and third person for Grace Hogan, Iris’ granddaughter, whom readers meet in “modern day” (mid-1970’s). Iris leaves her home and family in Australia and travels to France with the goal of locating her younger brother, Tom, who lied about his age in order to serve in the military. Iris gets sidetracked when she meets Frances Ivens, superintendent of Royaumont. The dynamic woman with the “can do” personality desperately needs a translator, and enlists Iris for the job. At first Iris is reluctant, but when she meets some of the other women at Royaumont and realizes it could take some time to locate her brother, she agrees to stay. This decision ultimately changes the course of her life. In many ways, she says, her life begins at Royaumont.

As Frances Ivens’ assistant, Iris assumes many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the hospital’s operations. It’s not easy for the all-female staff to keep the hospital running. Even obtaining the most basic supplies like beds and bandages is often difficult. But the women—the older, more experienced ones who see the hospital as a way to put their medical skills to work and the younger ones who feel part of something bigger than themselves, many for the first time ever—do what needs to be done, because “after all, we’re women”, as Ivens often tells her staff. MacColl does an admirable job of focusing on the humanity that often gets lost in the chaos of war. It would be impossible to tell the story of a war hospital without injured soldiers, but MacColl does not dwell on this fact. The soldiers, complete with grave injuries, missing limbs, and irreparable mental anguish, provide grim context for the story—they are the reason the hospital exists, after all—but really, the novel is about the women who run it.

Iris becomes particularly close with Violet Heron, another young woman who is swept up in the initial excitement of doing her part for the war effort. Violet is one of Royaumont’s ambulance drivers, and the changes that her job inspire in her are startling. When she and Iris first start at Royaumont she is a giggly, wide-eyed young woman with dreams of romance and daring; midway through the novel she turns cynical and jaded, disgusted with the war and the loss of life it brings. Iris and her brother Tom are reunited, but she is unable to convince him to return to Australia with her. By this time, Iris herself is far too deep into the cause to return home, either, so both siblings remain in France.

The secondary plot focuses on Grace, Iris’ granddaughter and skilled physician. She is married with a family, and her young son Henry is having some physical difficulties that become increasingly worrisome. Grace is strong, capable, and confident professionally, but starts to feel that she’s coming up a bit short as a wife and mother. Besides her husband and children, she cares for Iris, whose own declining health is another item on Grace’s list of worries. Grace knows nothing about her grandmother’s life during the war, so when Iris receives an invitation to a service recognizing the service of the Scottish Women of Royaumont, Grace is astonished. Who is this woman? Iris had assisted her husband in his medical practice, but Grace is amazed that Iris has an impressive medical background of her own.

In Falling Snow is a great book with a little bit of everything—history, family drama, romance, lighter moments with Iris and Violet, and even a little bit of mystery. MacColl notes that the telling of the story itself and capturing the spirit of Royaumont and the women who ran in was more important than scrutinizing every historical fact and figure, and I feel she pulled this off very well. Other than mentioning the year occasionally to construct a loose timeline and providing general descriptions in some scenes that neither detract from the plotline or betray historical accuracy, MacColl sticks to constructing the story, developing the characters, and remaining faithful to the setting.  There are a few twists and turns in the story to keep it interesting—once the secret of Iris’ involvement in Royaumont is revealed, readers may find themselves wondering what else she’s hiding. Some scenes seem a bit too tidy, but MacColl redeems herself with a big reveal at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I look forward to additional releases by this author.

A bookclub kit with exclusive material directly from the author.including recipes, discussion topics and more, is available here: http://bit.ly/1f8PGMA]


About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.