Maria: While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie is a poignant historical romance set during World War I.

In 1915, World War I rages, but is far away from the privileged world of Ellie Winthrop. Her life consists of tea parties, chauffeur-driven errands and trying to resist her mother’s demands that she marry. She sometimes defies her parents by attending suffragette meetings, but mostly she tries to be a respectable young lady. Yet what she truly seeks is meaning and the chance to make a difference in the world around her.

When two of her cousins die in combat, the reality of the war hits home. Days later she encounters a Red Cross station asking for volunteers to help the troops. For the first time in her life, she acts impulsively and boldly, joining the ranks of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She knows it will mean leaving the safety of home, but it’s also her chance to serve a greater cause.

Nurse Johanna Lennox is heart-weary. The endless barrage of wounded at General Hospital No. 7 has created a sense of detachment from those around her. Her only moments of peace come from stealing away to watch the sea.

When she is asked to train the new batch of volunteers, she sees it as an inconvenience. From experience, she knows that most VADS girls are pretentious and have never done a day’s hard work in their lives. She maintains a strict demeanor from the start, expecting her orders to be obeyed and for the women to keep up.

Ellie’s patience and compassion surprises her, luring her heart back from its isolation. Yet they come from two very different worlds and are in the middle of hell. Surely love could never thrive between them in such a place?

Caitlin: While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie is a charming historical romance set amid the danger of a World War I general hospital in France.

Stubborn English socialite, Ellie Winthrop, has no intention of waiting around for the war to be over. Ignoring her mother’s protests about what a proper lady does, Ellie joins a Volutary Aid Detachment (VAD) and is shipped off to France to confront of the horrors of war.

Johanna Lennox has little time for the VAD volunteers. War has taught her that the volunteers are mostly London socialites with little stomach for the horrific injuries she encounters on a daily basis. Johanna on the other hand is a trained nurse who processes her patients with efficiency and care.

When Johanna finds out she will be training the latest round of volunteers, she dreads her new assignment. Then she meets Ellie. Ellie defies all her expectations and meets her in every task. As their attraction grows, both question their places in a Britain that doesn’t understand their love.

The Characters

Maria: Ellie Winthrop is somewhat naïve and bright-eyed at the start of the story. Her compassion drives her, helping her to adapt quickly when others need her help. It leads to her joining Voluntary Aid Detachment and it rings through the entire book. Because she’s had such a privileged upbringing, it would be easy for a reader to either dislike or feel disconnected from her. What prevents that from happening is that she is earnestly searching to make her mark in the world. She acknowledges her wealth and knows the expectations of her family. Yet she knows that ultimately the life she is living isn’t truly meaningful. We have all had moments in our lives where we hope there is “more”. That yearning is familiar and it helps the reader feel a connection to Ellie, even if we might not totally identify with the world she comes from.

There are famous people we roll our eyes at and those we think we could have a beer with, Ellie is in the latter category.

Johanna Lennox starts the story disconnected from her emotions. She is tough and no-nonsense. She projects strength and tries not to show that treating so many injured young men has fractured her spirit. She doesn’t have a comfortable home or family waiting for her. Being a nurse is everything to her. Johanna grounds the reader in the story, offering a perspective that is grittier and more mature than Ellie’s.

Caitlin: Ellie is the kind of go-getter that I love reading about. She knows what she wants and goes after it. Our first interaction with Ellie is her attending a suffragist tea party. This sets her up as a somewhat progressive voice from the get go. From there, her decision to join the VAD after her cousin’s death during the war is hardly a surprise.

My favorite thing about Johanna is that she is Scottish. Give me a story set in the Scottish Highlands and I’ll be there. McKenzie does a great job of adding enough Scottish syntax to the dialogue to remind me that Johanna is Scottish but not so much that I have to reread sentences to figure out what they mean which is a difficult balance to strike. Not only that, but she’s also a nurse.

There is an immediate connection between these two that is only strengthened by the tense situation they find themselves in. Ellie is kind and friendly to Johanna from the start, but Johanna is a little more reserved.

The Writing Style

Maria: Historical novels can be creatures of ego — see, look at all the research I did, the author tells you by including heaps of details that don’t add to the plot. Like: Leech collector was an actual job way back when. No, that’s not something this book covers in any way. See, you didn’t need to know that for this review but I told you anyway.

While My Heart Beats avoids this trap brilliantly, the vivid descriptions of the hospital and the wounded feel like they are doled out in exactly the right amount. There is enough to understand the day-to-day of Ellie and Johanna’s world but it never feels bogged down.

Caitlin: It takes a little for McKenzie to reach the first meeting for these two as she spends just a bit longer than I thought was necessary showing us Ellie’s life in London. I didn’t mind this too much because they were well written and interesting scenes as the idea of Sapphic love is introduced to Ellie during these scenes, but it did mean Johanna was introduced a little later than you would usually see in a romance.

This is McKenzie’s first historical romance, and it still has a little of that contemporary writing style mixed in, though I felt the character reactions and dialogue were really spot on. I don’t read a lot of historical romance, but the blurb got my attention and told me I had to read it. If you’re in a similar boat, this is a great starting point as it’s such a short read.

The Pros

Maria: I loved the contrast between Johanna and Ellie, both in their personalities and in their background. Even before falling in love, the more they discover about one another, the more they need each other. They fit like puzzle pieces.

I appreciated Ellie’s conflict with her mother, how it progresses and how it resolves. Ellie’s desire to claim a new independence is matched well with the changing world around her. Her mother trying to cling to the more comfortable pre-war ideals is also understandable. I didn’t always like Ellie’s mother, nor am I supposed to, but I can see her perspective.

Caitlin: After spending so much time studying World War I at school, I lost interest in it which is unfortunate because I love learning about history (including wars). This novel brought back my interest. Once I picked up While My Heart Beats, I couldn’t put it down. I kept reading long after bedtime just so I could see what would happen with these two.

Any book that can hold my attention that well doesn’t need any other pros, but here are just a few: Johanna’s Scottish accent, the beautiful descriptions, well crafted dialogue, and women in nursing uniforms.

The Cons

Maria: Possible Triggers: As this is a story set in a hospital tending to the wounded, there are mildly graphic depictions of war injuries. Additionally, there is a scene in a field hospital with vivid descriptions of being close to a war zone, including explosions.

While I liked Ellie and Johanna’s relationship, in moments there was an overdose of saccharine adorations. I’ll group that in with the ‘Sister Sunshine’ nickname Ellie gets at the hospital. They threw me out of the story for a few moments but I moved passed them.

Also, Ellie’s father has a pivotal role in the story and as such, I wish we had seen more of their relationship.

Caitlin: There is nothing I disliked about this one. If you don’t like war books, this is unlikely to be a good pick for you because there is some discussion of the injuries suffered by the soldiers they’re treating.

The Conclusion

Maria: Even as history nerd, World Wars haven’t typically drawn my interest. Men in trenches, warfare, bombs and guns? Yuck. Yet stories about individuals, their struggles and their sacrifices, matter. This fictional novel offers a realistic glimpse into the past. There really was a VADS and in it women from many walks of life. Nurses and doctors in WWI were indeed overwhelmed, facing an unprecedented number of dead and wounded.

Ellie and Johanna not only survive this world, they chose to show compassion. They seize empowerment despite the lack of opportunities for women. I found myself reminded that there were others who had a similar journey. It was worth remembering.

The book linked me more closely to the past while telling a touching love story. I enjoyed getting to know the characters and watching their relationship unfold especially in such an unlikely landscape.

Caitlin: This is one of my favorites of 2020. While the war time backdrop is a sometimes heartbreaking scene, there is something so wholesome about these two characters exploring their growing attraction for one another. Even if you’ve never read historical romance, these characters and this story are timeless.

Excerpt from While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie

Excerpt from Maria

Every minute of every day was trying, but by God, Sister Lennox was smiling. They were both dirty, sore, and exhausted, but that smile lit Sister Lennox’s face like a beacon in a storm. Ellie had always thought her beautiful, but standing there now, she was stunning.

After weeks of working side by side, they had developed into an efficient team, but Ellie barely knew her mentor. There was a chink in Sister Lennox’s armor now, and Ellie threw caution to the wind.

“Sister Lennox, what is your given name?”

Her question was met by a look of surprise for a long moment, and then Sister Lennox answered quietly, “Johanna.”

Perhaps it was Ellie’s exhaustion that had her feeling cheeky. She stuck out her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Johanna. I’m Eleanor, but you can call me Ellie.”

Stifling a grin, Johanna clasped her hand. Her work-roughened skin was warm, her touch surprisingly gentle. “I’ll do no such thing.”

Ellie’s heart dropped into her stomach and she pulled her hand away. Bloody hell, I’ve overstepped my bounds. She let out an audible groan of embarrassment.

“At least not while we’re on duty.”

Johanna winked, then stepped away and out of the room. Ellie stared after her, then shook her head with a smile.

Excerpt from Caitlin

By the next morning, Johanna couldn’t help but feel a bit of excitement, despite the reason for her excursion. A driver took her, along with six soldiers deemed fit to return to their units, to Boulogne, and dropped them at the entrance to the rail station building. She bid the soldiers farewell and good luck, then turned to the driver.

“I’ve got some supplied to pick up, Sister, but I can meet you here when I’ve finished. Your new arrivals should be here by then.”

“Thank you, Private.” The young man touched his cap and drove off.

Johanna stood on the worn wooden platform and took in her surroundings. She hadn’t been away from the hospital for weeks, and she felt exhilarated by the different kind of chaos outside of its confines. Motorized vehicles and horse-drawn conveyances vied for space on the street, and old women in black shawls peddled apples and flowers to passersby. The busy hum of a hundred voices was a welcome change from the moans and shouts of men in pain. Just beyond the platform, a sergeant barked orders to a group of soldiers, new arrivals by the look of their pressed khakis and clean puttees. She felt a pang of worry for the fresh-faced lads and contemplated the likelihood that some would end up in their wards at the base hospital.

A distant whistle told of the train’s impending arrival, and Johanna’s thoughts reluctantly turned to her task. Was Matron off her head, putting her in charge of the volunteers? She was no teacher—she had little patience and even less tolerance for frivolity and nonsense. She was here to do her job and didn’t need any interference. Still, Matron Campbell had been good to her, and out of respect for her fellow Scotswoman, she’d have to try her best.

She watched as the train rumbled to a stop, the great black engine belching blacker smoke. In only a few moments, the platform was swarming with people as the passengers disembarked. She searched the crowd until, toward the far end, she caught sight of four heads clad in the white handkerchief caps of the VADs. The women stood still for a bit, looking around, until one seemed to take charge. She strode briskly in Johanna’s direction, and the others followed in her wake like little blue and white ducklings. The leader was rather tall, like Johanna, and reddish-blond curls escaped from her cap. As Johanna stepped forward to intercept them, she turned startling blue eyes to her and smiled. Johanna almost smiled back, the woman’s confidence and open, friendly face taking her by surprise. Remembered her role and wanting to establish her authority, Johanna schooled her features and spoke sternly.

“Ladies, I am Sister Lennox, and I will be taking you to the hospital to which you’ve been assigned. I was told to expect five—where is the other volunteer?”

Blue Eyes spoke right up, still smiling. “Miss Andrews has taken ill and couldn’t come. It’s just the four of us.” The others nodded, wide-eyed.

“Humph.” Johanna checked her list and called the names. The last name, Miss Eleanor Winthrop, belonged to Blue Eyes, and she nodded. “Come along then—the transport should be waiting.” Before Johanna turned to walk away, she noticed Miss Winthrop’s smile falter as she exchanged glances with the others. Johanna felt a bit guilty for her brusque manner…but only a wee bit.

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