The Secret of Raven Point: A Novel

by Jennifer Vanderbes

(Scribner, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

A graduate of Yale University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she also has taught writing, as well as a winner of coveted literary fellowships, Jennifer Vanderbes  enjoyed notable success with her debut novel, “Easter Island,” which made “best book of 2003″ lists of  the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor. She also has written essays and reviews for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Atlantic and has published short stories in Best New American Voices, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Granta. Vanderbes also has taught creative writing for Columbia University’s M.F.A.Program, and at the Colgate Writers’ Conference and now is a teacher in the University of Tampa’s M.F.A. program.

What is this book about?

Set during World War II, “The Secret of Raven Point” is a war story, a mystery and a romance, parts that  Vanderbes’ cleverly blends into an effective whole.

It’s heroine, Juliet, is 17 when we meet her. Motherless since age 3, she is extremely close to her soldier brother, Tuck, who sends her a puzzling letter and then goes missing in action in Italy. Juliet, ever resourceful, fudges her age and becomes an army battlefield nurse, the better to search for her brother. In Italy, she becomes involved with a gravely psychologically wounded and suicidal deserter, Christopher, and his young psychiatrist, Dr. Willard. We soon learn that Christopher was in the same squad as Tuck, and may have the information that Juliet so desperately craves. But he’s mute due to his wartime experiences, and he’s heading to an execution. How Juliet and the doctor work to save him and learn his secrets powers the novel.

Why you’ll like it:

Secrets, romance, war, mystery: any of these can capture a reader, and this novel has them all. Add a strong young female protagonist, and you have a winning combination. Throw in skillful writing and characterization, and you have “The Secret of Raven Point.”

Here is what Vanderbes told Vogue about her latest book:

“I likely chose to make Juliet a nurse because I’d been a hospice volunteer for years and had firsthand experience tending the dying. (Though Juliet faces more blood and bone than I’ve ever seen.) But in all my training sessions over the years, I was always struck by the fact that the rooms were full of women. Dame Cicely Saunders invented hospice care. Florence Nightingale, of course, professionalized nursing. I was interested in that part of women, and of myself—caretaker, nurturer. How does helping someone else, often a man, become empowering?

“Juliet is plucky, awkward, and deeply caring, but she’s young, and she has no idea what war looks like until she arrives in Italy. Oddly, she wasn’t seventeen in the novel’s first draft, but as I got older and kept reworking the novel, she got younger. And then I became a mother and my relationship to her changed profoundly. I had a speechless infant in the next room, a person I knew I would spend my life loving and caring for, and yet I had no idea who she was, what kind of person she would be. Suddenly Juliet, offered me an outlet: She became a fictional daughter, a young woman I was trying to guide into womanhood on the page.

“I was resistant to writing a romantic war novel, yet I was deeply interested in exploring sibling love, platonic love, unrequited love. Losing her brother seemed just the right caliber of heartbreak to set Juliet in motion—both toward Italy and adulthood. I have an older brother—a paramedic, in fact—so the sibling bond is a natural thing for me to write about. He actually helped me fact-check a lot of the hospital material.”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says:  “When her beloved brother is declared missing in action, smart, flinty Juliet Dufresne, training to be a nurse, goes to Italy to find him, in an empathetic, oblique take on the layers of damage done during war. Part mystery, part coming-of-age tale, part World War II novel, overlong but incrementally moving latest is written from the perspective of a bright Southern teenager who is forced to become an adult too soon. Losing her mother at age 3 has left Juliet especially close to her brother Tuck, so when he disappears while fighting in Europe, she forges her birth certificate so she can enlist immediately after graduating from the Cadet Nurse Corps. Soon, she is tending injured men on the Italian front, one of whom is Barnaby–a deserter who has attempted suicide–who was in the same squad as Tuck. Working with the attractive psychiatrist Dr. Willard, Juliet tries to discover what Barnaby knows about Tuck’s last movements while all around her, young men and even her colleagues are being wounded and destroyed. With Barnaby sentenced to death, Willard and Juliet find themselves involved in a wild effort to save him, a journey which leads to truths Juliet will fully understand when the war ends. What begins as formulaic turns unusual and affecting as the emotional depths of Vanderbes’ story slowly emerge.”

Library Journal says in a starred review: “It’s 1944, and Juliet Dufresne is busy caring for wounded soldiers at a field hospital near Rome. At the same time, she’s hoping to hear news of her brother, a soldier listed as missing in action. Juliet goes about her daily duties tending to her patients as she thinks of the mysterious letter she received from her brother shortly after he disappeared. Everything changes when a wounded soldier from her brother’s platoon serendipitously enters the hospital. Unfortunately, getting answers is more complicated than it seems. VERDICT At first glance, Vanderbes’s  . . . novel is a touching tale of a sister’s love for her brother, but the underlying themes are much deeper. Readers will fall in love with the delightful Juliet, who is a smart and courageous heroine, and other hospital workers as they form friendships and struggle to accept tragedy and loss while treating their patients’ physical and mental wounds. While not all the mysteries here are resolved, the only disappointing thing about this book is that it has to end.”

“Vanderbes graphically depicts the gruesome nature of battlefield injuries, both to the body and to the psyche, even as she shows Juliet’s courage and strength. The skillful Vanderbes’ aching depiction of Juliet’s struggle to maintain her humanity amid the army’s callous bureaucracy and the horrors of war works as both an homage to our armed forces and a moving personal story of emotional growth,” says Booklist.

Says Publishers Weekly: Vanderbes’s third novel explores sibling bonds and what it means to push oneself beyond limits. In 1943, two weeks after high school graduation, Juliet Dufresne signs up to be an Army nurse, hoping to find her missing brother, to whom she is exceptionally close. Serving at battlefield hospitals, she has to live up to enormous expectations, and she finds a well of compassion and strength she didn’t know she possessed. She begins working with Dr. Henry Willard, who pioneers new psychiatric techniques, including some pertaining to battle fatigue. One of their charges, a deserter named Christopher Barnaby, is suspected of attempting suicide and is up for court-martial. Yet he may be able to tell Juliet what happened to her brother, if she and Henry can excavate it from his psyche. Juliet and Henry find themselves drawing closer together, and making decisions that put their own careers and lives on the line, in order to help Barnaby. Juliet surprises herself with her capacity for growth and for maintaining her own integrity against seemingly insurmountable odds. The book does not shy away from the grotesque details of battle or the horrible decisions that ordinary people must make when faced with war’s extraordinary demands.” 

When is it available?

Vanderbes’ new novel is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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