REVIEW: Doing No Harm by Carla Kelly
Dear Carla Kelly,
I saw Doing No Harm featured (mentioned?) on a New Releases post here a few weeks ago and, like I often do with the New Releases posts (*shakes fist*) I immediately one-clicked. The set up appealed to me; a surgeon, recently retired from the Royal Navy after the end of the war with Napoleon, trying to find a place to settle and quietly practice medicine and get over the rigours of war (if such a thing can be done), but who, on his way to this mythical perfect place, stops to help a boy with a broken leg and stays far longer than anticipated.
While I went on a buying binge of your books after reading Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand earlier this year, unfortunately, I haven’t found time to read any of them (bad Kaetrin) but even after just one book, I associate your work with comfort reads, gentle delight and perhaps a serving of angst but tempered with hope and kindness. And this is what I found in Doing No Harm. I was almost immediately charmed and I fell into the world of the book so very easily. For a person who reads few historical romances these days, I think that says something.
The themes in the book are difficult and very moving; I admit to shedding some tears along the way, but the romance is delightful and there is, overall, a feeling of hope and renewal in the book and the vast majority find a happy ending, not only Douglas Bowden and Olive Grant.
Captain Douglas Bowden, formerly a surgeon in the Royal Navy, now just plain Mr. Bowden, is looking for a quiet place to retire and perhaps practice a little medicine. He initially thinks he will want a place away from the sea and those close to him scoff at such a thing. After seeing so much war and blood and pain and death, he thinks the sea holds no comfort for him anymore. But he quickly realises that’s not quite right and there is still something about the sea which invigorates and enlivens him. He is comfortably off because of his 1/8 share of various prizes of war and in no particular hurry to find a place to settle. He figures he will travel about until he finds just the right place. On the way, he is about to pass through a small town in the Scottish lowlands, called Edgar (it is fictional but you say in your note at the end of the book that is is inspired by Kirkcudbright), when he sees a heavily pregnant and distressed woman, obviously malnourished, carrying a young boy with a compound fracture of the lower leg. Douglas is a man of compassion and duty and he is out of the coach lickety-split and sacrificing a neckcloth to use as tourniquet without further thought. Needing a place to tend his patient, he is directed to Miss Grant’s Tea Rooms, where he meets the proprietess, Miss Olive Grant herself. Douglas decides to stay in Edgar (hosted by Miss Grant in a spare upstairs room across from the makeshift hospital room she supplies for the boy, initially) until little Tommy is well, but he is not staying; Edgar is not his “perfect quiet town”. No, he is not staying.
During the war, many of the men left Edgar to join the military and many didn’t return. Others left the town to seek better paying jobs elsewhere – a shipwright could earn better pay in Glasgow or Portsmouth – and the local boat building business collapsed. Edgar is a town in decline. Added to that, about 40 Scottish Highlanders were foisted upon the town during the “Clearances”. The Highlanders were not made welcome – to most in the town they represented more mouths to feed when the loaf was already cut very thin and language barriers and cultural differences were seen as a further reason to alienate them. (As I’m writing this, I am seeing so many modern day parallels – cruelty and strife is not just the province of Great Britain during the Regency of course.) The Clearances occurred over a lengthy period (as your Author’s Note at the back of the book mentions) when the wealthy landowners (mostly there was only one; the Countess of Sutherland) turfed out the tenant farmers who raised cattle and a few crops, in favour of sheep farming. There was more money to be made in sheep and less labour was needed, but the crofters had nowhere to go. There was no formal or humane relocation; there was no effort at retraining or offering compassion. The crofters and their families were forcibly moved from their homes (often as they were being burned down around them) and shipped off to places like Australia and Canada and The United States, or to elsewhere in Scotland and England and certainly in the latter cases, they were foisted on communities already struggling with their own economic woes. For those who arrived in Edgar, with no skills relevant to their new locations and little work around anyway, there was little for the Highlanders to do but starve.
Olive is the daughter of the former Minister of the town and a woman of great compassion and generosity. She has (or had) a modest inheritance from her late father but has been providing meals to any who would come to the Tea Rooms (and quite a number of the Highlanders were too prideful to seek such charity – this is something associated in the narrative with most Scots and is not exclusive to the Highlanders). Those who can pay, do, but many, many cannot. Olive’s inheritance is dwindling and she will not be able to keep going indefinitely but she is unable to do anything other than try and feed “her people”.
When Douglas arrives, Olive sees such great hope in him. Very quickly, he is referrred to by the townsfolk as “our surgeon”. But he will not be staying. She is very clear-eyed about that. She would dearly love him to stay but she knows he will not. Douglas himself tells her this regularly. He’s not staying.
Effectively the story is about Douglas’s and Olive’s courtship, against the backdrop of their joint concerted efforts to renew the town and provide for its people. But it is also the story of Douglas himself, who clearly has [what we would now call] PTSD following his long experiences of war, beginning to heal and, (I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone reading this review) oh, so slowly, realising that Edgar is home and he is, in fact, staying.
“You were calling out and muttering in your sleep,” she whispered back.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
“No, I …” He stopped, and indulged in the truth. “I have bad dreams.” He took a deep breath and said something he never thought he would say to anyone, let alone a lady he barely knew. “Would you mind awfully just keeping your hand on my shoulder until I return to sleep?”
What on earth was he asking? He closed his eyes in the deepest humiliation, ready to cry, except he was too old for that, too long at this war business.
She said nothing, but increased the pressure of her hand on his shoulder. He didn’t mean to, but his head seemed to naturally incline toward her hand. The last thing he felt was his shoulders relaxing. When he woke next, it was morning.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Bowden. How on earth could anyone go through a lifetime of war and not have a bad dream or two?” She released his hand and just looked at him, her face so pleasant, even with freckles and funny eyes. He couldn’t think of a time he had seen such kindness, which made her face nearly beautiful.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “If … if that happens again, just leave me be. I’ll wake myself up and go back to sleep.”
She shook her head slowly. “Not under my roof you won’t,” Miss Grant said, her voice low and full of emotion. “My father was a minister, and he didna raise me to ignore suffering.”
Douglas swallowed. “It’s not much suffering, not in the great scheme of things.” He tried to turn his nighttime anguish into a joke, but she wasn’t buying it.
“Not under my roof,” she repeated, but softer now.
(Don’t worry readers, there isn’t much of the didna’s and shouldna’s. Also, the “funny eyes” is because Olive has heterochromatic eyes – one brown, one blue.)
And on and on through years of war. His logical brain reminded him occasionally of the many more sailors and officers who owed their lives to him. He knew it was so, but always standing behind them were the dead, not so much accusing him, but sorrowful that he could not have done more.
He sat alone in his surgery and grew angry at those ghosts. “You do not understand that I wish I could have done more,” he said, his voice firm. “There was not enough medical science to cure you. If there had been, I would have.”
He couldn’t possibly appease his demons.
Many of the townsfolk have their own smaller story arcs, mostly with happy endings, but also, most of them filled with a history of trauma and pain. Douglas recognises the signs of [what we would now call] PTSD in the children of the Highlanders (not to mention the adults) who witnessed atrocities as they were being thrown out of their homes. The stories are heartbreaking and Douglas and Olive (and others) shed quite a few tears over the course of the book.
Why in the world did little Scottish girls have such beautiful, heartbreaking eyes? He knew what she was going to say.
“I hae nowt t’pay thee,” she whispered.
He looked into her pretty eyes, dismayed to see they were sunken. He saw how tight her skin was stretched across her face, and the fact that her dark hair looked brittle. He asked himself who was his patient and broke his own heart.
Douglas and Olive share a few kisses only – there are no explicit scenes (as I understand is usually, if not always, the case with your books), but the story is wonderfully romantic and intimate and there is plenty for the romance reader to soak up as they make their way to their HEA (which they both acknowledge is likely to be filled with worry and work as they care for people in their various ways. But they will be happy together, I have no doubt).
He looked into her honest, true, multicolored eyes and knew he needed to lighten the load a bit. He was getting almost sentimental. “Olive, I find myself looking more into the brown one than the blue one. Odd, that.”
She laughed and slapped his head, which made him grab her and kiss her, not on the forehead this time. Her arms went around him as though they did this every day, and they stood together in a tight embrace.
She drew away first; he had no immediate plans to ever move.
“My goodness, but I react boldly to good news,” she said. Her face was fiery red now, and he supposed his was too. “I should perhaps apologize?”
He shook his head, dazed with feelings he had thought belonged to a younger man. You’re not eighty, you dolt, he scolded himself, struck by the fact that for the first time in decades, he didn’t feel eighty. This bore some private thought.
The story is not an inspirational as such. There is no proselytising. Rather, faith is a very strong part of Olive’s makeup and motivation and, Douglas begins to make his own connection/reconnection with his faith as the story progresses. My feeling was that the faith expressed in the story was very much in keeping with the time and the people in it.
Douglas is a beta type hero – he’s not a brawler and he’s mostly not bossy, although he can give his fair share of orders when he is in medical mode. His heroics are more about collaboration and compassion and generosity. Much of the book was told from his point of view and as a hero-centric reader, this was an extra bonus. He was humble and stoic and loyal, and so very kind, without being annoyingly perfect. I adored him.
It’s not a perfect book however. I thought the ending confrontation was a little too much wish fulfillment (in some ways) and there were unfortunately a number of typos in the text – including the rather surprising date of “1987” for the epilogue which I believe actually takes place in about 1817. There were also a number of anachronisms I spotted and those who are passionate about historical accuracy may find it too much to bear. I looked up a few things because they struck me as not being true to the time in which the book was set. I could see how Douglas might say “deep six” in the colloquial sense about 30+ years before it was first documented (in that context) if I squinted, but “give me the willies” seems to be well past the timeframe and likely of American origin in any event. I was also a little skeptical that Douglas would associate germs with infection and illness in 1816 but then again, he was a very good doctor, so maybe he was a man ahead of his time.
I’m going with an A- for the grade despite those things because I was so completely immersed in the story and so touched and moved by it. With only a few exceptions, the writing was just beautiful and the characters were so well drawn. Olive and Douglas were wonderful together and I loved many of the wider cast as well. The solution to Edgar’s problems was not in just one man or just one thing, but at a certain point, the juggernaut turned Edgar’s way and it all made very good sense. It did take certain people being motivated to try (most notably Olive and Douglas) and it did take some money (of course) but in the end, Edgar was self-sustaining and self-sufficient and that made me happy too.
If readers can get past some bad copy editing (really there were too many errors that slipped through to the final version, including an obvious continuity error and the misnaming of an aristocrat) and a couple or three anachronisms, Doing No Harm is an absolute delight. I recommend.