Book Review: “Healing, Romance, and Revolution: Letters from an American Nurse in 1926 China” by Carolyn & Dennis Buckmaster

This review was written for Healing, Romance, and Revolution: Letters from an American Nurse in 1926 China (Kindle Edition)

I would have liked to have seen an Introduction, which would provide some concise Chinese history for context, as well as more biographical information on Harriet’s life, before and after her trips to China. However…

“Healing, Romance & Revolution” is a delightful collection of letters, written by Seattleite Harriet “Hat” Smith. They were sent to her mother and others during her adventures as a young, single, and very independent nurse in China in the 1920’s. This was Hat’s second long-term stay in Changsha, Hunan Province. She was paid to educate nursing students and care for patients in the hospital, with the Yale-in-China program; a foreign missionary association, based out of Newhaven, Connecticut. Yale-in-China eventually evolved its function and focus from an evangelical mission to medical education, creating a prep school, middle school, and college; and it provided the most advanced Western medical training in China at the time, running a nursing school and hospital, funded mainly through foreign aid.

During this time in history, China was in civil war of varying degrees – the Chinese National political party was the Kuomintang, led by Sun Yat-Sen until his death – and then led by military strong-arm Chiang Kai-Shek before eventually being taken over by the Communist Party. The trickle-down effect on the community and hospital where Smith worked is illustrated in her letters as the Chinese struggled in constant flux to determine what the new character of China would become after each governmental and ideological change. Disruptions by newly-formed unions, worker’s rights demonstrations, military actions, egos or “face”, and the ever-changing demands of students and workers led to conflict with and frustrations for the American and other foreign educators.

Now quite a contrast to the abbreviated current day emails, Twitters, and phone texts, Harriet Smith’s letters are a wonderful example of old-fashioned letter writing: long, descriptive, personal, witty, and of literate merit – in other words, a joy to read. Keeping in touch with friends and relatives half-way around the world, during a time when the boat and mail service wasn’t guaranteed due to weather and war, was an exercise in commitment and patience. Harriet had the forethought to ask that her letters be kept as a running documentary of political and military unrest in China at the time, and so we have this collection today, painstakingly compiled by her grand-neice, Carolyn Buckmaster and Carolyn’s husband, Dennis. Even without any prior knowledge of Chinese history or medicine, the reader will enjoy her letters, for the mere pleasure of her droll wit, 1920’s style hipster lingo, and positive, worldly outlook on life.