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The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

Amid the Australian Army hospitals of World War I Egypt, two deeply determined individuals find the resilience of their love tested to its limits

It’s 1911, and 21-year-old Evelyn Northey desperately wants to become a doctor. Her father forbids it, withholding the inheritance that would allow her to attend university. At the outbreak of World War I, Evelyn disobeys her father, enlisting as an army nurse bound for Egypt and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

Under the blazing desert sun, Evelyn develops feelings for polio survivor Dr William Brent, who believes his disability makes him unfit to marry. For Evelyn, still pursuing her goal of studying medicine, a man has no place in her future. For two such self-reliant people, relying on someone else for happiness may be the hardest challenge of all.

From the casualty tents, the fever wards and the operating theatres of the palace; through the streets of Cairo during Ramadan, to the parched desert and the grim realities of war, Pamela Hart, beloved bestselling Australian author of THE WAR BRIDE, tells the heart-wrenching story of four years that changed the world forever.

Author Pamela Hart on the art of writing historical fiction

the desert nurse book review

The Desert Nurse is so full of detail. Assuming that you don’t have a time machine tucked away in your spare room, how much effort is put into the research before the writing can even begin and how do you start? 

I do about 60-70% of the research before I start writing.

There’s a LOT to learn for this kind of story. I started, as I often do, with two main sources: the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and Trove.nla.gov.au, which is possibly the single best compilation of resources by a national library anywhere in the world (everywhere else you have to pay for this kind of research access, but in Australia it’s free!).

Luckily, the AWM has digitised many of the diaries kept and letters sent by soldiers, nurses and doctors from WWI, so I was able to read their own words and see the photographs which they had taken, as well as reading the official histories. Those diaries and letters gave one kind of view, the official histories give another, and the Army standing orders give yet another. Putting them all together, hopefully, you come up with a sense of what life was really like.

Being set in World War I, there are societal norms and phrases such as ‘cripple’ which were commonplace. They are needed to create that historical period, but how did you know how much to use and when? Did you find it hard to write some of the characters conversations which seem so outdated by today’s cultural standards?

Yes, it’s very difficult, especially the casual racism which was all around then. I chose to dramatise racism rather than have it pervade the story, so the sub-plot about the Matron and Dr Fanous carries that contemporary attitude, because I felt I couldn’t ignore it, but I didn’t want to foreground it without a commentary.

The ‘cripple’ thing was tricky. The last thing I wanted was for that kind of language to be perceived as okay, so you might have noticed that the only person who introduces that word about William is actually William himself, and then it’s clearly used out of a deep feeling rather than a casual dismissal.

I think a great deal about these things before I write those scenes. I don’t want to whitewash history and make the characters act like 21st century people; but on the other hand, I want to make sure that I don’t inadvertently reinforce stereotypes.

I think a historical fiction writer has a duty to the reader to show what contemporary attitudes were life – but also to remember that there were always people who didn’t agree with those attitudes, which is why things changed.

Book Review The Desert Nurse By Pamela Hart

Are you more headstrong like Evelyn, or ‘see the sunny side’ like Hannah?

Hmmm….. I suspect my mother would have told you I’m headstrong. I definitely remember her saying, ‘You’ve never taken our advice, not once!’  So I may not have been the most biddable child in the world.

And I guess I’ve mostly done what I wanted to do with my life, which takes a certain amount of headstrongness (is that a word?). Determination, maybe. (Which, by the way, I learnt from my mother!)

On the other hand, I am an optimist, I think. If you have no hope for the future, then you don’t try to work to improve things, and then we’re all lost.

I think every character shows some aspect of the author – even the horrible ones!

Reading about a young woman breaking glass ceilings and into male-dominated job roles is always a welcome read. Are there plans to promote, share, or write a historical fiction which reaches a younger audience and shares with them the Australian females throughout history who trail blazed before them? 

Why yes! Although not fiction. Next month (August), I have a non-fiction picture book coming out with Hachette Children’s (Lothian Books), called Amazing Australian Women, which does just that. Twelve extraordinary women from all works of life (and several ethnicities), from all over Australia, who in their time blazed trails which the rest of us can follow. Some of them are names you might know, such as Nellie Melba and Edith Cowan, and others are people we have mostly never heard of, like Tarenore and Tilly Aston.

I’m very excited about this book – and I’m hoping that it will be seen as the perfect present for every little boy as well as girl!

book review the desert nurse by Pamela hart

Where in time are you off to next? 

1920s London! It’s called Dancing with the Prince of Wales, and features Fred Astaire, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and others – as well as telling the story of Jane and Jonesy, whom my readers met in The War Bride. They head off to London to become stars of the stage and screen, and get caught up in the Prince of Wales’ set. (This is the one who abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson.)

I’m having huge fun doing the research for this one (the frocks are fabulous). Flappers, the Charleston, midnight picnics and cocktails on the terrace! It’s nice to have some glamour after the hardships of the war hospitals. But the war casts a pretty long shadow over the characters…

The Desert Nurse is an engaging, heartfelt and incredibly detailed historical fiction by one of the best in the business!

Published July 10 by Hachette Australia

Buy your copy here!

the desert nurse review

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About Pamela Hart

Author Pamela Hart
Author Pamela Hart

Pamela is an award-winning author for adults and children. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney. Under the name Pamela Freeman she wrote the historical novel THE BLACK DRESS, which won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for 2006. Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy, and her Aurealis Award-winning novel EMBER AND ASH. Pamela lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches at the Australian Writers’ Centre. THE DESERT NURSE follows her bestselling novels THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, THE WAR BRIDE and A LETTER FROM ITALY.