In a decidedly earnest author's note at the end of Patchwork Angel, Laurel Collins tells us that her book is based, in part, on historical fact. There's certainly nothing wrong with that – in fact, like many readers, I enjoy getting a little historical knowledge along with my pleasure reading. However, in this case, I have a feeling that the history behind this book caused most of my problems with it.
This is a Civil War story, but Collins foregoes the oft-used Rebel vs. Union conflict. Instead, she tells a tale of a volunteer army doctor and a simple country healer, both on the side of the Union.
Maggie Wade is our heroine, a backwoods spinster who has been "doctorin' folk" since she was a girl. When her brother is injured in an early skirmish in the War and discharged from service, she comes to the army hospital at Cairo, Illinois to bring him home. She immediately comes into conflict with the doctor in charge of the hospital, Bryce Cameron. He doesn't like the idea of a woman hanging around his hospital, especially one who might try to practice some of her folk medicine on his patients.
After that, the story becomes difficult to summarize. Collins tells us in the author's note that Maggie Wade is based on an historical figure, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a "tireless soul who upon arriving in Cairo, Illinois, in 1861, helped to clean up the tent camps and organize the hospitals there."
And Maggie does this. In fact, we're given a fairly detailed account of the tasks she performs, the prejudices she faces, and the dedicated service she provides first as a volunteer, and later as a nurse for the Sanitary Commission. This part of the book is adequately interesting as the story of the struggles and good works of a genuine historical figure. Unfortunately, I picked up this book looking for a story about a relationship between two people, and that's where Patchwork Angel fails.
The conflict between Maggie and Bryce is shifting and muddled. Early on, Bryce vows that he'll never allow himself to get close to a woman, due to his guilt over the death of his wife. He's not grieving for her exactly – it wasn't a happy marriage – but he feels he should have done more to save her from her untimely death. So, he's determined to remain alone for the rest of his life. Or maybe he won't.
After only a brief and rather superficial acquaintance, he becomes besotted with Maggie. This burgeoning love didn't ring true to me. He admires her, yes, and he's attracted to her, but love? He barely knows her. And he's able to push away his solemn vow about never marrying again with astonishing ease. Things are going swimmingly between them.
Maggie has a few doubts of her own – she feels she's not enough of a fancy lady for the likes of the high-society Dr. Cameron – but he's quick to disagree, and she seems to believe him. I was puzzled. Where's the conflict?
Bryce and Maggie spend a memorable night together in a cave – long story – and he buys a ring. This is all interspersed, you understand, with lots of hospital scenes where Maggie and Bryce tend to various comforting/doctoring duties. I'm still wondering where the conflict is when it suddenly resurfaces. A brief and unexpected visit from his father sends Bryce hurtling back to self-doubt. All his old wounds come to the surface. He was not a good husband, he'll never be a good husband. He'd be doing Maggie a favor if he simply walked out of her life with no explanation. So he does.
Well, here we have some conflict again, but now I'm irritated. He's just going to leave? Doesn't he even consider the possibility that Maggie might be pregnant, given the memorable cave night? I mean, he's a doctor, he knows the facts of life. None of this enters his head, and from this point on, Dr. Cameron began to strike me as self-centered, weak, and whining.
The story struggles on through bloody battlefield scenes and lots of misunderstandings between the two main characters. Bryce never redeemed himself in my eyes, and on the whole, Maggie came out as a much stronger person. The inevitable happy ending between them seemed hurried and untrue, and it didn't come close to resolving the issues between them, in my mind.
All in all, I think Patchwork Angel would have fared better as a straight historical novel. Collins writes well enough, and she did a good job of crafting the character of Maggie. But as a romance, this is a highly unsatisfying read.