For anything I’ve ever written, be it fiction or non-fiction, my favorite research is always sifting through primary sources. There is something about reading materials that are unfiltered by someone else’s editorial judgment, in their original form, that gives me chills, as if I’m connecting across time and space to another person’s soul.
My research for Line of Flight led me to just such a close encounter in the New York Public Library’s lion-guarded main branch, which houses the 1915-1919 records of the American Fund for French Wounded. Founded by American women living abroad to aid small French hospitals serving wounded troops during WWI, the AFFW maintained its U.S. office in New York City—hence, the location of the archive (although other records are housed at Yale).
My protagonist, Simone Levitsky, ends up volunteering for the AFFW as a way to search for her daughter, Camilla, along the Western Front. I wanted to know what those volunteers saw and felt on their delivery routes, providing medical assistance to wounded soldiers and civilians.
So, back in August 2016, I spent hours in a book-lined research room at the NYPL, pouring through boxes of correspondence, written on well-worn typewriters, corrected by hand. It was quite the treasure trove. Back then, people wrote wonderful, detailed, eye-witness accounts of their travels, dinners, conversations, and general observations of life in France.
To give you a taste, here are excerpts from a letter by A. Schuyler van Rensselaer, president of the New York branch, to volunteers at the AFFW’s Paris Depot, about her experience as nurse in charge of the Motor-Van Canteen at the Chalons-sur-Marne Railroad Station, July 1, 1916. (The original is 3½ single-spaced, typed pages):
Our task consists in serving the soldiers. We aid those who cannot help themselves to food or drink—so many of them are wounded in both hands or both arms or, their heads envelopped [sic] in bandages, are unable to see! We guide their movements, lift them up, support them, and under their heads, which lie too low and which rest, for want of something better on their caps stuffed with hard objects, slip little pillows until they say with a sigh of relief: “Ah, that is much better, thank you!” These little pillows, of which you have been good enough to send us great numbers, are the manna of the sanitary trains. . . .
After serving the men with their food we give them cigarettes. We put socks on their bare feet, and slippers of felt or lamb’s wool. Everything of the sort that you have so generously given us is disposed of to the very last article. Many of the men have had their feet frozen, and we often relieve them by replacing their heavy marching shoes with these soft warm slippers. We also examine the bandages and dressings and call the attention of the surgeon of the train to those that have become blood-stained or are too tightly bound, and also to such patients as are in delirium or seem to us to be growing worse. And we try to calm the insane, for the bursting of a shell sometimes produces a total or partial impairment of the brain.
The deep voice of the guns almost always accompanies us on our journeys. The chasing of aeroplanes is a daily distraction; by preference they fly over the railroad stations in order to attack provision trains or troop trains. The Zeppelin of Revigny fell quite close to one of our vans; some of our lines are bombarded every day, and sometimes, by accident, an ammunition wagon blows up near our own, which we never leave.
Day and night we live in the tumult of the railroad stations, but one soon grows accustomed to these noises, unknown in the ordinary course of life; we even love them because they secure for us the joy and the honor of aiding our soldiers in their sufferings. . . .
There were many more letters that I read and photographed, to record appearance and mood of wounded soldiers, the state of medical care, inventories of items that the AFFW distributed, how small and mid-sized hospitals looked and smelled, as well as the voices of the authors and how they filtered what they saw through their own values and prejudices. As essential as these details were to building the world of my novel, however, the cadence of correspondents’ words influenced me most of all, and found its way into how Simone tells her story.
Historical fiction novelist in the future will undoubtedly scour Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and Tik-Tok videos to create their own characters and stories about our fraught times. But give me an old-fashioned letter, any day, to delve into past lives.
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.
Image: “American Fund for French Wounded” poster, (Paris: Herbert Clarke, ca.1917), Library of Congress.