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Reviewed by Marta Tandori for Readers' Favorite
Courage Between Love and Death, a gripping historical novel by Joseph Pillitteri, is so well written that fact and fiction seamlessly weave together to form a brilliant tapestry that is a feast for the mind and the senses. The year is 1901 and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York has made history with the arrival of the president of the United States, William McKinley and his sickly wife. Young Elspeth “El” Shaughnesshey is a newly-minted nurse, having graduated from Bellevue Hospital, and is now serving at the Pan-American Hospital where she puts up with the abuse meted out by Dr. Quentin Augustus Kingdom Jr., the hospital’s senior intern, as well as the other egotistical doctors she must serve, all for the paltry sum of fifty cents a day. However, Elspeth needs every penny of it as it helps her widowed mother feed the many mouths in their large Irish brood. Now with an eviction notice looming over her mother’s small upstairs flat, Elspeth sets her sights on the very eligible, albeit unkind, Dr. Kingdom as a potential husband who could end their poverty – if only she wasn’t so attracted to the new intern, Dr. Gunner. However, Elspeth’s personal problems are soon cast aside as unrest looms with the president’s visit – until the unthinkable happens…
Courage Between Love and Death gives readers an unvarnished look at life at the turn of the last century, where there seemed to be only two classes – the very rich and the very poor. Elspeth’s family, Irish immigrants, made a living any way they could and were part of the countless number of immigrants that had come to America and now struggled to survive amid the prejudices of the time. Pillitteri paints a vivid picture between the haves and the have-nots; resplendent crystals, jewels and gowns amid disease-infested streets, where rats feast on decaying carcasses of fallen beasts abandoned in the middle of the street. This was America at the turn of the last century and it’s not a pretty picture, despite the impressive backdrop of the grand Pan-American Exposition that has drawn huge crowds, including the president of the U.S.
Elspeth Shaughnesshey is the perfect protagonist for her time. Fiercely proud yet determined to rise above her station in life to help her family, she’s the backbone of the book – a heroine with many flaws who effortlessly commands a reader’s empathy and support. Despite the many challenges she faces, both personally and professionally, Elspeth manages to get through it all with a certain grace and a growing emotional maturity beyond her years. Pillitteri also gives his readers a first-hand glimpse into the medical profession of the era. Primitive practices and unhygienic conditions fueled by huge egos – all of these make for unsettling bedfellows in the practice of medicine that few would argue was still in its infancy back then. Well-researched with the perfect combination of compelling characters and fascinating storyline, Courage Between Love and Death is a gripping tale from start to finish and well worth the read.