Monday, August 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Nurse's Secret by Amanda Skenandore

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review. 

The Nurse’s Secret by Amanda Skenandore is a historical mystery embedded in a rags-to-riches (or if not riches, at least reasonable success) tale set in New York City in 1883.

Born to a poor but respectable Irish family in Five Points, Una lost her mother to a tenement fire (her mother was trying to help others) and her father to drink when she was just a child. She survives by becoming a petty thief and pickpocket. She’s understandably embittered and lives by an every-woman-for-herself creed. She believes everyone else does too.

Una loses even the very weak support system that she has when, while attempting to fence stolen cufflinks, she is caught in the act. Worse, the man to whom she was going to sell the jewelry was murdered in an alley. Una is arrested and charged with theft and murder. She escapes; she has some practice escaping from lawmen. Needing to lie low afterward, she applies for a position at the new nurse training school at Bellevue Hospital.

Nursing had not been a respectable profession before Florence Nightingale made it so. Bellevue Hospital started a program to train young women in the Nightingale tradition. Una lies her way in. However, she quickly discovers her usual blend of defiance and guile will not serve her well. Fearful of being kicked out of the program, she buckles down. Gradually she discovers an aptitude for nursing. She also makes a true friend, her very innocent roommate, who has a passion for the job. Also, she is befriended by a young surgeon, a man trying to live up to the name of his famous surgeon grandfather while also adopting newer surgical practices that his superiors scorn. This friendship soon veers into love.

Una’s transformation proceeds apace, from an angry, cynical young woman who can’t be trusted (and who is not a likeable protagonist) into a competent nurse and reliable friend. However, at the same time, the person who did commit the murder that Una was blamed for strikes again. And again. Una figures out who it is. To expose the killer, she has to risk re-engaging with the criminal underworld, which could lead to her own capture by the police. Or, it could lead to her being the killer’s next victim.

The historical details are well presented and Una ultimately matures into an admirable character. The novel is well worth the read for its glimpse into the seedy criminal world of the times.

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