Three Ordinary Girls, by Tim Brady

Reading Three Ordinary Girls was an odd experience for me. I both enjoyed and actively disliked this book. Complaints first.

When a nonfiction book cites Wikipedia, I cringe. It conjures memories of my teachers telling me that Wikipedia wasn’t an acceptable source for my papers (despite being better on average than most encyclopedias, which my teachers did accept as source material). Maybe I’m stuck in the past’s paper-writing habits, but surely Tim Brady can hunt down whatever sources the Wiki editor used, and reference those instead? I think what bothered me most was that nearly all of the referenced sources in this book boil down to just a few pieces, referenced over and over again. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I should have read those books instead. I would have liked more depth and breadth of source material.

Now, that may be empty quibbling: those few referenced pieces are the extant primary and secondary sources, in most cases sourced directly from the people involved. They include interview material from the “ordinary girls” in question. But… I would expect someone writing a nonfiction book to at least cite original sources for the material cribbed from Wikipedia. Maybe I’d feel differently if the book read less like someone had simply punched up a previously existing secondary source and slathered it with in-the-moment details cribbed from a primary. Or maybe this is just Tim Brady’s style (I haven’t read any of his other books). Either way, I don’t like it. Maybe you won’t mind.

All that said…

Three Ordinary Girls is gripping. The lives of these young Dutch women during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the actions they take as members of the resistance, are exciting and frightening. Their story is painful and dramatic and evocative. It’s bloody. It’s scary. It’s a potent reminder of the banality of human cruelty, and of the messy and complicated ways in which people act when their world is tossed upside down. It’s another example of how occupation, revolution, collaboration, and resistance are overlapping and confusing and violent, with few places of certainty or security. And it’s a testament to the bravery and convictions of the three young women whose stories this book tells.

To its credit, Three Ordinary Girls doesn’t try to reassure the reader with a sanitized, polished, or clear cut glamorous war story. That may be what I admire most about it. There are many admirable stories about how people stood up and did the right thing to oppose the Nazis. But those often ignore the painful truths of how that resistance was hard, and confusing, and traumatizing, and sometimes resulted in bloody mistakes, internal conflict, and power struggles. I appreciate the way in which this book captures all of that.

For those reasons, I’d probably recommend this even if it were less well written and researched. Well, maybe not less well researched… I do prefer my historical nonfiction to remain nonfiction. But yeah, it’s good as long as you’re ready, willing, and able to stomach the awfulness.

But… there’s a lot of awfulness. Be ready to be distressed. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was violent, cruel, and bad in just about every way you can imagine the Nazis being. The only redeeming quality to it was that they (the Nazis) didn’t engage in quite as much wholesale murder as they did in Eastern Europe. Scant comfort.

If you don’t already know enough about teenagers in the Dutch resistance during World War Two, and want to know more, check this out. If you aren’t up for reading about brutality and murder in uncertain times, you should probably look for something else.

The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

This reminded me strongly of The Poisoner’s Handbook, another semi-biographical history of medical science (forensic medical science, in that case). Much like with The Poisoner’s Handbook, I can’t recommend this book if you’re not comfortable with reading about gore. If you don’t know what gangrene looks like, maybe you’ll feel better reading about it than I did (don’t look that up casually).

That said, I finished the book in the course of slightly more than a day. Clearly reading about evocatively gruesome and painful medical history does not deter me.

But a huge part of what makes this book so excellent, in my mind, is the way in which it clearly conveys the total transformation in the technology and technique of surgery over the course of the 1800s. That the book does so while also giving us a window into the personal life of the man who worked so hard to transform medicine is a lovely added bonus.

The Butchering Art opens with the grim realities of surgery in the early nineteenth century, in which each operation—usually an amputation—was sudden, painful, and likely to result in post-operative infection. Speed was vital in part because patients were not anesthetized, and they often struggled under the blades and saws of their surgeons. Even if a surgeon operated successfully, patients often died of post-operative infection afterwards due to the frequent foulness of surgeons’ hands, instruments, and operating conditions. These infections were so common and expected, and so frequent in hospitals, that the collection of diseases and infections were simply called “hospitalism.”

Yet by the close of the book, we’ve seen the development and spread of modern antiseptic (and eventually aseptic) technique, the spread of anesthesia, and the complete transformation of the butchering art (excellent title choice).

It’s really quite wonderful seeing the way in which Dr. Lister (the main focus for most of the book) finally comes to his realizations about post-operative infections. His fight to convince others of his discoveries is both encouraging and disheartening at turns, but not surprising. I’m not sure to what degree my appreciation comes from my love of nerdery, and to what degree it comes from Fitzharris doing a good job of walking us through Lister’s explorations, realizations, and struggles. Either way, it works well.

I should also note: I’m not an expert in the relevant historical period, and I found checking Fitzharris’ sourcing difficult in the ebook version I read. But she makes frequent use of primary sources, including a plethora of personal letters and Dr. Lister’s case notes, and manages to do so in a way that feels far more convincingly researched (and more widely sourced) than some other historical non-fiction I’ve read recently.

If you’re looking for historical non-fiction and you’re intrigued by the growth of modern medical science, I absolutely recommend this book.

Enjoy.