Stella Bain

Stella Bain

by Anita Shreve

Hardcover(Large Print)

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Overview

An epic story, set against the backdrop of World War I, from bestselling author Anita Shreve.

When an American woman, Stella Bain, is found suffering from severe shell shock in an exclusive garden in London, surgeon August Bridge and his wife selflessly agree to take her in.

A gesture of goodwill turns into something more as Bridge quickly develops a clinical interest in his houseguest. Stella had been working as a nurse's aide near the front, but she can't remember anything prior to four months earlier when she was found wounded on a French battlefield.

In a narrative that takes us from London to America and back again, Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, set against the haunting backdrop of a war that destroyed an entire generation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316098854
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 11/12/2013
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Anita Shreve is the acclaimed author of 16 previous novels, including Rescue, A Change in Altitude; Testimony; The Pilot's Wife, which was a selection of Oprah's Book Club; and The Weight of Water, which was a finalist for England's Orange prize. She lives in Massachusetts.

Hometown:

New Hampshire; Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

1946

Education:

B.A., Tufts University

Read an Excerpt

Stella Bain


By Anita Shreve, Hope Davis

Hachette Audio

Copyright © 2013 Anita Shreve Hope Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-09886-1



CHAPTER 1

Marne, March 1916


Sunrise glow through canvas panels. Foul smell of gas gangrene. Men moaning all around her. Pandemonium and chaos.

She floats inside a cloud. Cottony, a little dingy. Pinpricks of light summon her to wakefulness. She drifts, and then she sleeps.

Distinct sounds of metal on metal, used instruments tossed into a pan. She tries to remember why she lies on a cot, enclosed within panels of canvas, a place where men who die are prepared for burial away from the rest of the wounded, a task she has performed any number of times.

She glances down and finds that she is wearing mauve men's pajamas. Why do her feet hurt?

A small piece of cloth with a question mark on it is pinned to a uniform hanging from a hook. For several minutes, she studies the uniform before realizing that she does not know her own name. She receives this fact with growing anxiety.

The name Lis floats lightly into her thoughts. But she does not think Lis is her name. Elizabeth ...? No. Ella ...? Ellen ...? Possibly, though there ought to be a sibilant. She ponders the empty space where a name should be.

The name Stella bubbles up into her consciousness. Can Stella be it? She examines the letters as they appear in her mind, and the more she studies them, the more certain she is that Stella is correct.

Again, she drifts into a half sleep. When she comes to, she cannot remember the name she has decided upon. She lets her mind empty, and, gradually, it returns.

Stella.

Such a small thing.

Such a big thing.

Stella has no idea where she has come from. She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open. But no one's entire past can be unhappy, can it? It might contain unhappy events or a tendency toward melancholy, but the whole cannot be miserable.

All around her, the hum of flies and the beat of fast footsteps. Orders are shouted; a new batch of wounded is coming in; the staff will want her bed, of course they will. There is nothing wrong with her, and she has simply been allowed to sleep a long time.

She rubs her feet together. A sharp pain through the muffling of bandages. How has she injured her feet?

A panel is moved aside, and she hears a woman speak in French. Seconds later, a nurse, a nun, enters the small canvas compartment. As she moves toward the bed, she looms large in her starched uniform and wimple. She scrutinizes Stella's eyes, scanning, the patient knows, for dilated pupils. "You are British?" the sister asks.

"I am not sure," Stella answers.

"You have been unconscious for two days," the sister explains, stepping back and fussing with the sheets as she slides Stella's feet from under the covers. "Your feet had bits of shrapnel in them when you arrived. Someone with a cart left you outside the tent in the middle of the night. I should like to examine your feet."

This is someone else's story, Stella thinks, not hers.

"What is your name?"

"Stella." She pauses. "Where am I?"

"Marne."

"Marne is in France?"

"Yes," the sister answers, pursing her mouth. "My name is Sister Luke. I am British, but almost everyone else at the camp is French. We believe your boots blew off when you were knocked unconscious by the first shell and that a second shell injured your feet. You had not a scratch on you otherwise, apart from some bruises from falling."

"Will I be able to walk?" Stella asks.

Sister Luke studies her. "I think you are American."

"Am I?"

"From your accent. But you were found in a British VAD uniform."

Stella cannot explain this.

"You are a VAD?"

"I don't know."

Stella can see that the sister is annoyed and has other, more pressing matters to attend to.

"But I know how to drive an ambulance," she blurts out.

Is this true? If not, why does she think it is?

"You know this, and yet you do not know your posting?" the sister asks with barely concealed disbelief.

Yes, the paradox is bewildering but does not seem urgent. Beyond the canvas, Stella knows, everything is urgent.

The sister moves toward the opening in the compartment. "Apart from your feet, I can find nothing wrong with you. You will have them examined and dressed on a regular basis. Then you will rest and eat and drink while we ascertain your identification. We will contact all the nearby hospital camps. You cannot have come very far. When your feet are better, you can work. Perhaps we will see if you can drive that ambulance after all. In the meantime, you are to remain here. What is your last name?"

Stella simply shakes her head.

Orders are given, and a nurse's aide arrives with a tray. The dressing of Stella's wounds is more painful than she would have thought possible. The aide, who looks exhausted, helps Stella drink two glasses of water. Stella feels sorry for the young woman and does not ask questions because she knows the effort it will take to answer them.

Stella's last name comes to her the way a bird takes flight. She tells the aide, "I am Stella Bain."

When the aide leaves, Stella closes her eyes and then opens them. She repeats this exercise several times. But no matter how often she does it, she cannot remember what regiment she was attached to or what she was doing on a battlefield.

A month later, Stella has recovered from her wounds and serves as a nurse's aide in a French uniform. Again, she puzzles over the way her skills have returned to her, even though she does not know where she learned them.

Stella is appalled by her surroundings: the soil thick with manure; mud-laced wounds causing suppurating infections; compound fractures imposing a death sentence. A swab of Lysol along with gauze dipped in iodine is all the medicine on offer. A gas-gangrenous wound, not to be confused with the effect of poisoned gas, balloons up to grotesque proportions. Stella watches a doctor play an idle beat upon a man's flesh with his fingers. The sight is awful, the sound hollow. Almost all the men die.

Sometimes, the doctors' screams are louder than the patients'. The surgeon's job is beyond belief, a hell on earth worse than any hell imagined. Stella wants to know how many of them go mad, all sensibility and religion violently stripped away during the endless succession of amputations.

Always look a man in the eye, no matter how terrible the wound. This the English sister teaches, orders, her to do. The wounded's journey is long: from the trenches of no-man's-land to the aid post to the field dressing station to the casualty-clearing station, only to die on the train on the way to the base hospital.

In her off-hours, Stella mends tears in her skirt, brushes mud off her hem, and searches for lice in the seams of her clothing. She washes collars and cuffs and the cloth of her cap, and if there is water left over, she tries to clean her body.

One day, she asks the sister on duty if she might have a piece of paper and a pencil. In her tent, Stella begins to sketch what she can see around her: a lantern, a canvas table, a cot in the corner. Her roommate, Jeanne, catches her at this activity and marvels at Stella's ability. In broken English and using a kind of sign language, she asks if Stella will draw her portrait so that she might send it back to her family. Jeanne has hollow eyes and a vocation. As she draws the young woman, Stella wants to ask her how her religion has survived the sights they have both witnessed, but Stella's grasp of French is not good enough for any sort of meaningful conversation.

When Jeanne brings a fellow aide to the tent and asks Stella if she will draw her friend's portrait, Stella agrees on the condition that Jeanne find her more paper and pencils and a knife for sharpening the pencils. This Jeanne happily does. Jeanne's friend insists on paying Stella for her sketch. Gradually, a number of nurses and their aides line up to have their portraits done as well.

But between the portraits, when Stella is alone, the private drawings she makes disturb her. She sketches the exteriors of unknown houses, surrounded by grotesque trees and bushes. When she tries again, the drawings are nearly the same, but the atmosphere of claustrophobia grows even more pronounced. The sketches produce a keen sense of distress, but she cannot stop herself from continuing to make them.

Stella does not know how she came by her skill at drawing. It seems to have appeared simply out of a desire to do so.

The English sister must have remembered Stella's statement that she can drive an ambulance, for she receives her first assignment on a June night.

"Over and up," the French orderly beside her says. The ambulance bucks, but does not stall. Stella has to feel her way along the road, since no lights can be used. Her eyes strain and water. In the distance, rockets throw a greenish light over the countryside.

Stella screams when a shell bursts two hundred feet ahead. First, a large splash of earth, and then a ball of smoke, which drifts away. The orderly swears, French words that she understands. The orderly is fluent in English, which is, Stella supposes, the reason he has been assigned to her.

"It's going to get rough," the man explains. "Especially when we pull in. That is where we are most vulnerable. As soon as I jump off, you turn the truck around and keep the engine running. Someone will help me load. When I pound the back here, you start driving, no matter what is happening. You find a way to get back."

Physical fear begins to climb Stella's spine, and yet she has done this before, has she not? Her hand shakes on the gearshift. She squeezes her shoulder blades together, expecting a direct hit to the Croix Rouge symbol on the roof. She has no idea where the road begins. She struggles to see the slightest indication of tracks, but smoke clouds the path. How will she find her way back to camp with the wounded inside? Regulations prohibit her from stopping at any point, even if the men behind her start to shout.

She senses the bump of each stretcher as it is loaded into the back of the bus. She waits for the pounding on the wooden panel.

Stella does not know how many are in the back, how badly wounded they are. She cannot even be sure it is the orderly himself who has signaled to her. She wishes he were up front so that she could talk to him.

"Left," she says aloud to herself as she finds and follows the tracks. And later, "Slow down."

When she arrives back at camp, she slides like a reptile from the driver's seat. Despite the cold, she has perspired through to her coat. She counts the wounded as they are unloaded. She is struck by their apparent freedom from pain. Stranger still, she can hear one of them whistling. She feels stronger and lighter than she has in months.

One day, walking through the camp, Stella hears a man curse the institution that assigned his brother to a ship that sank. Her mind snags on the word Admiralty in the sentence. She puzzles over it so much in the days that follow that Admiralty becomes a kind of mythic goal, a monolith drawing her toward it. She believes that she will one day reach it, and she hopes that once she sees the building or the landscape, she will remember why it seems to be so important. But how strange, because to her knowledge she has never been in England. Can her quest be the result of an event in her former life?

Admiralty hums in its own layer, the one behind the present moment and before the void that is her memory. A word. A title. A note. It presses and troubles her, even when she actively tries to think of something else.

Stella learns that the Admiralty, headquarters to the British Royal Navy, stands in central London. She begins to cherish the word because she believes it comes from her previous life, perhaps the first chink in the armor of her inner mind, where memory and identity lie. Has she ever worked at the Admiralty? Lived close to it? Did she once have a husband who worked there? The notion threatens her, because she cannot imagine having forgotten something as basic as a man she loved and the intimacy they shared. Often she studies her fingers, searching for a tiny circle that might signal the previous presence of a wedding band. But she has found nothing. In the privacy of her tent, shortly after her arrival, she conducted a physical examination. A husband or a lover is a possibility.

Throughout the summer, Stella's life consists of tending to the wounded, driving an ambulance, and drawing on paper with a pencil. In this way, she sometimes forgets that she cannot remember.

In October, Stella is granted leave. She thinks this might be her one chance to get to England. She must find the Admiralty and discover its importance. Jeanne tells her she should go to Paris.

Stella asks for and is given a canvas satchel in which she packs her British uniform, her sketches, and the money she has earned from making portraits of nurses and their aides.

Once in Paris, she catches a train for the coast, where, she has heard, English hospital ships carrying wounded men are setting out for home. But the train, due to heavy bombardment, has to stop before it reaches Étaples. Even from a distance of ten miles, the shelling can be heard. The hospital personnel are urged to stay in their seats; the train will be rerouted.

With her satchel, Stella slips from the train and makes her way into the woods. If her exit has been seen, will they bother to look for her? She cannot imagine a doctor or a train conductor trying to find her. Stella remains, for the moment, a stateless woman in a lawless country.

The journey through the forest is arduous and frightening, but gradually the woods thin out to reveal the coastal village. Along the way, she encounters a chaos such as she has never seen before. She begins to cough, whether from the smoke or illness she cannot tell. In Étaples, Stella discovers that the large Red Cross hospital ship to which the wounded were headed has partially sunk.

She ducks inside a tent and changes into her British VAD uniform. "I've lost my way," she tells the first official-looking British man she meets.

"They're using smaller ships now to get across the Channel. There's a dock at the eastern end you might try."

Stella locates a ship that was perhaps a ferry or a pleasure boat. There is no pleasure aboard it now. When she sees the cargo, she gasps. The wounded and the dead have not been separated. The calls of the injured sound as if they come from an underworld she has only dreamed about. Here and there, she observes nurse's aides like herself comforting men and applying dressings.

No one asks to see her identity card. No one cares. She does what she has been doing for months in Marne, tending to the wounded and assisting with operations that cannot wait until they reach the shore.

When in England, Stella boards a train with the most seriously hurt, the ones who might not, even with a doctor's ministrations, make it to Victoria station. En route, the men are sick and their bowels loosen. There is a priest on board to deliver last rites, and it is one of Stella's duties to make sure she can find the man at any given moment.

In London, Stella silently wishes the wounded well and then leaves them. Trading with the soldiers heading toward the front, she exchanges her French money for English money. Exhausted, Stella follows a crowd along what looks to be a main thoroughfare. She walks in a direction she thinks will lead to the Admiralty, but after a while senses that she has made a mistake. Finding herself on a narrow lane, she tries to retrace her steps. She walks without food or water, fingering the unfamiliar British coins inside her pocket. She moves forward until she can walk no more, but still she keeps trudging. She walks until she comes to a stop against a wrought-iron fence. A woman in a rose-colored suit asks her a question.


London, October 1916

A woman in a rose-colored suit, which strikes Stella as both odd and beautiful because she has seen little color on anyone in London, asks her if she is unwell.

"My name is Lily Bridge. From my window across the garden, I saw you leaning against the fence. Pardon my candor, but you seem to be overwrought."

Who, Stella would like to know, is not overwrought in this time and place?


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, Hope Davis. Copyright © 2013 Anita Shreve Hope Davis. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Audio.
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