When I saw Heroines of Mercy Street, I was instantly excited. I have thoroughly enjoyed the show on PBS, and I was exited to learn more about the individuals whose lives inspired the show.
I dove into the book and finished it in three days, despite its not being what I expected.
The name led me to expect a couple short biographical sketches of the real people who inspired some of the main characters of the show Mercy Street. What the book was instead was a brief history of nursing during the civil war, which led to the creation of nursing as a profession for women after the war.
Now, the book did also do some biographical sketching of Dorothea Dix, Mary Phinny von Olnhausen and Anne Reading (who inspired the character Anne Hastings in the show). And it was very interesting to get some of the back story behind these women and their characters. But I wanted more.
This book showed how nursing got started. It did a very good job highlighting the challenges women faced and it didn’t try to sugar coat the fact that most women came on as nurses with little to no training, learning on the job by trial and error. It didn’t represent them as these magical creatures who knew everything immediately and never grew faint at the sight of blood, and that, I thought, was refreshing.
Author Pamela Toler used diaries, correspondences, and memoirs to paint a general picture, but now I want individual portraits. I want to take the primary documents and paint an even more detailed picture of the life of one nurse during the Civil War. And maybe I will. Perhaps Mary Phinny von Olnhausen, or perhaps Louisa May Alcott. Heroines of Mercy Street highlighted several women, all of whom would make interesting subjects for an in-depth look at the life of a nurse during the Civil War.
So while the book wasn’t quite what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it, though as a disclaimer, I feel I must confess to be a history nerd. It gave me insight in to some of the characters of the show and satisfied its self-created hunger for more information, even as it left me wanting more.
If you are interested in the Civil War, nursing, women’s studies or you have just enjoyed watching the show, Heroines of Mercy Street is a quick and interesting read that’s worth the time.