A vivid and powerful novel from an award-winning writer about a young American woman who enlists as an army nurse during World War II and is deployed to Italy, where she tries to find her missing brother.
Juliet Dufresne is a hard-working and smart high-school girl who aspires to make a groundbreaking scientific discovery like her hero Marie Curie. Life in South Carolina with her father, stepmother, and her brother Tuck is safe and happy. But when war breaks out in Europe, Tuck volunteers and serves in Italy—until he goes missing. Juliet, already enrolled in nursing school, is overwhelmed by the loss of her brother, so she lies about her age and enlists to serve as a nurse in the army, hoping she might find him.
Shipped off to Italy at the age of seventeen and thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, Juliet doles out medicine, assists in operations, and is absorbed into the whirlwind of warlife. Slowly she befriends her fellow nurses, her patients, the soldiers, and the doctor who is treating the little-understood condition of battle fatigue. Always seeking news of her brother, her journey is ultimately one of self-discovery.
Both a compelling coming-of-age tale and a moving wartime narrative told with verve and emotion, The Secret of Pigeon Point is Jennifer Vanderbes at her best.
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About the Author
Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novels Easter Island and Strangers at the Feast, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Granta and has been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in New York City with her daughter.Visit her website at JenniferVanderbes.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret of Raven Point
WHERE HAD HER brother gone? wondered Juliet, staring out the window at the empty football field.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early December, and Juliet Dufresne was alone in the school chemistry lab, preparing for the South Carolina Science Fair. Tuck had been glancing up at the lab window throughout practice, awaiting her signal. But now the entire team had vanished.
The sky was pale gray, the window’s thin glass cold against her palm. A late-autumn chill seeped through the bubbled cracks along the windowsill, and Juliet crossed her arms for warmth. Beneath the pink pillowcase she’d fashioned into a lab smock, she wore a thick cream-colored sweater. Her black shoes were dusted with flour. Tendrils of dark-blonde hair, having escaped her braids, clung to her safety goggles.
Well, he wouldn’t go far, she thought. She’d find him in the locker room and tell him what he’d missed. She looked at her watch: time for one more run-through.
Returning to her worktable, Juliet arranged her funnel of flour, the white dust tickling her nose. She struck a match, lit her candle. Combustion, she thought excitedly. A complex series of chemical reactions between a fuel and oxidant, creating heat or light. Inert elements, when combined, could generate a wilderness of power, releasing their full potential.
Full potential—Juliet grinned. Having taken second prize two years in a row, she was certain this experiment would win the blue ribbon. She loved being in the lab. She loved the silence of the corkboard walls and the cavernous aluminum sinks. She loved the room’s glittering precision: tidy shelves of thick-glass beakers, rows of test tubes suspended in metal drying racks. Bright, orderly, the lab always had the feel of morning. Here she could do as she pleased without being shunned or gaped at.
For as long as Juliet could remember, the mauve birthmark on her left cheek had rendered her something of an outcast. The mark wasn’t awful—the size of a strawberry, perhaps—and it had faded with time. But in the quiet southern town of Charlesport, it had been enough to elicit exhaustive commentary from classmates throughout her childhood. Affliction, deformity. The words still clung to her, although the remarks ended when her peers, struck by puberty, had themselves become pimpled and unpredictably puffed. By then, Juliet had come to take comfort in seclusion. She devoted her time to Women in History biographies (having read the Marie Curie volume four times), to “boyishly unwieldy” chemistry experiments, according to Mr. Licata, her favorite teacher (now lurking supportively in his next-door office), and, late at night, she disappeared into the delicious misery of Henry James’s heroines. Juliet’s sole confidant was her brother, Tuck. “Tuck here!” had been Juliet’s first sentence, shrieked through the house, a toddler’s garbled and passionate plea for her brother, two years older, to remain constantly by her side.
Glancing once more out the window, clouded with her handprints—how could Tuck miss this?—Juliet gently hammered a lid onto the can. “Please be careful . . .” she whispered to the empty lab, “as you witness the power of combustion.” She blew into a rubber tube attached to the funnel, and a tremendous bang erupted. The can’s lid soared in flips and flutters like a giant tossed coin. Perfect! The judges would be dazzled. Tuck would love it.
Juliet mopped up the traces of flour, gathered her things, and rushed down the dark back stairs, across the silent gymnasium. A weak band of afternoon sunlight lit the planks of the basketball court. At the threshold of the locker room she called, “Tuck? You in there?”
Heavy footsteps thudded toward her, and Beau Conroy appeared, his hair wet from the shower, his face scrubbed a raw pink. Beau was the team’s linebacker. He had the shadowed, flattened face of a boxer, and his hair had been shaved close to his head. His eyebrows were thick and dark, his eyes a shade of green that Juliet, when first meeting Beau at age ten, had told her brother she thought looked like emeralds. A bright white T-shirt hugged his sloping shoulders.
“Tuck took off,” said Beau. “Everyone scrammed in some kind of hurry. Me? I like my showers. Here. He left you this.”
As he offered up the folded page of a magazine, Beau studied her.
Off to see Miss Van Effing!
Juliet sighed and slid the note deep into her pocket. This had been happening quite a bit lately.
“This Van lady have a first name?” Beau asked.
She did not, because she did not exist. It was a code Juliet and her brother had devised years earlier. To say Miss Van Effing meant, Help me, cover for me, tell Papa something to keep me out of trouble. Juliet suspected Tuck had once again gone to hear the radio broadcast at Sammy’s Soda Shop. Their father, who had served as an army surgeon in the Great War, forbade listening to broadcasts about Hitler at home.
“You shouldn’t read private notes,” said Juliet.
Beau smiled. “Then you gotta make them longer. I never read anything long.” He lifted his gym bag. “You goin’ home? I’ll walk you.”
“I’m perfectly able to walk home alone.”
“Jeez, Juliet, why you gotta be so difficult?”
Juliet did not mean to be difficult. She liked Beau. She liked his deep voice and his big-toothed smile. He lived alone with his grandmother and had even built her a special wheelchair. But she had only ever seen Beau alongside Tuck. If they walked home together, what on earth would they talk about?
Beau blinked hard, his green eyes studying the rim of the basketball hoop above, and Juliet wondered if he was having the same reservation. She inhaled the steamy traces of mildew and sweat seeping from the locker room. From the darkness beyond, a lone showerhead hesitantly dripped.
Beau settled his bag on his shoulder. “You’re getting womanly, Juliet; I can see when it happens to the girls. First they get a few pimples and pretty soon their heads start goin’ topsy-turvy. Every girl needs a little something to calm her down. To get her on course. A first kiss is like bourbon.”
Juliet stepped back, registering what Beau had said. Years earlier a friend of Tuck’s had suggested a game in their yard—Last one to the tree has to kiss the sister! The sister. The boy didn’t even remember her name. Juliet had forced herself to smile, and would have stoically suffered the degradation of his game had Tuck not told the boy to go eat his own crap.
Now, looking at Beau, Juliet straightened her posture. “Beau, I’ve kissed so many boys”—she worked her jaw in an exaggerated ellipse—“my mouth is sore.”
Beau laughed. “So, little Miss Difficult is a liar.”
Did he actually find her awkwardness amusing? Charming? Juliet had read of such unexpected attractions but never imagined herself a participant. Beau impatiently adjusted the strap of his bag, and Juliet realized she did not want to lose this opportunity. “Have you brushed your teeth?” she asked nervously.
Beau walked across the darkened gymnasium to the water fountain, gargled, and spit out an arc of water. “Will that do, ma’am?”
Juliet felt her breath quicken. “Let’s go outside.” Taking the stairs two at a time, she pushed the door open into the chill of the empty parking lot. She set her books on the ground and leaned back against the school, propping her foot on the wall—a pose she’d seen other girls strike. If she could only get still, Juliet thought, just arrange her legs and arms in some vaguely mature stance, she wouldn’t feel so ungainly.
“Listen, you won’t tell your brother . . .” Beau hesitated in the doorway.
“Staring into a dozen barrels of the guns of a firing squad,” she said dryly, “I will not speak of this.” But there was nothing Juliet didn’t tell Tuck, and she was already wondering how she would relate this incident.
Beau set down his bag beside her. “You know, Coach said we got some college recruiters coming to see the state championships. I might get myself an athletic fellowship. Tucker tell you that?”
Juliet looked away and licked her mouth. Her lips gathered delicately in what she knew was called a Cupid’s bow, but the air against them now made them feel enormous.
“Look, it’s like jumping into a pool,” said Beau. “You just gotta one-two-three-go. But turn your face in my direction.” He leaned into her, and Juliet closed her eyes, her palms stiffening against the rough bricks behind her. The darkness comforted her; she was nowhere, she was in outer space. She could smell Beau’s aftershave, thick and lemony, and felt his hand on her chin. His mouth pressed into hers and in a startled gasp, her lips parted. His tongue was warm and alive and insistent, a creature unto itself. She felt the smooth edges of his teeth and worried at the sharpness of her own. Then his fingers, thick and strong, slid up her face, stopping to cover her birthmark.
She pushed him back. “Hey.”
“Oh, come on, I thought it’d be nice.”
“Nice for who?” she yelped.
“Juliet, it’s not even that noticeable anymore. I bet it’ll disappear completely.”
“And if it doesn’t disappear?”
Beau’s mouth fell crookedly open, and the thought of what he might say filled Juliet with such dread that she gathered her things and walked off. “Hey, I’m sorry!” he called after her. She wanted to run, but fought the urge. She had two rules when dealing with tormentors: no running; no tears.
In the grainy afternoon light, she trudged through the old part of town, passing the formerly grand homes of Hancock Street. She glared at the ruined mansions, withering under buckled beams; strips of paint peeled off at irregular intervals so that the façades seemed to be suffering from a bout of measles or chicken-pox scabs. Around the turn of the century both a hurricane and a fire had ravaged Charlesport. But Juliet found it difficult to imagine these events—the noisy, wet drama of a hurricane, the roar of buildings aflame. It seemed impossible that a town standing in such dreary slumber had once built massive ships to sail the world.
Nothing here now, she thought, but small-town bores.
Soon she passed the thickly wooded area where years earlier she and Tuck had rescued a wounded raven. “Raven Point,” they called the woods. Together they had nursed the bird back to health and kept it as a pet. Juliet had grown attached to Cher Ami, who would follow her to school. But at Tuck’s insistence, they eventually released the bird back into the woods. He belonged to the wilderness, Tuck had said. But for months afterward, Juliet and Tuck would lie side by side at the edge of Raven Point, staring up at the thick canopy of trees, calling Cher Ami’s name. Several times, they thought they spotted him on a distant branch. But the woods had changed the bird; he wouldn’t come down. Eventually, when she called his name, Juliet wasn’t even certain she could tell him apart from the other birds. She wept at this, and Tuck held her close. He said maybe it was their mother she was weeping for, and Juliet thought perhaps he was right. She had died when Juliet was only three years old. Over the years, she and Tuck grew accustomed to lying at the edge of Raven Point, listening to the scratch of squirrels climbing the bluff oaks, talking into the early evening. It became their secret hideaway. Here they had shared their first cigarette, sipped their first bourbon. Here they had conjured up the fictional Miss Van Effing.
Miss Van Effing.
As Juliet finally ascended the creaking white steps of her house, she recalled her task: “Tuck’s practice is running late,” she announced, opening the door. “He won’t be home for a while.”
Pearl, having commandeered the dining table with cards and envelopes, news clippings and pens, barely looked up. Their stepmother spent great portions of her days writing to politicians. Having once shaken the hand of Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl prized more than anything else the white glove she’d worn on that occasion, now wrapped in a red velvet cloth in her bureau. Never in the history of the world, thought Juliet, had a woman been so undeserving of a name: Pearl was short and bowlegged; her eyes were a lusterless gray. She was several years older than their father, and had married him that March.
Her father glanced up from the coffee table, where he played his customary game of chess against himself. He slid forward a rook, and in his professorial baritone asked, “How was lab, Juliet? Did magnesium and phosphorous behave today?”
Juliet considered confiding everything about Beau. But it would only sharpen her father’s guilt. He had always believed Juliet’s awkwardness stemmed from her mother’s absence, and tried to make up for it by spoiling Juliet with the one thing he had in abundance: knowledge. At dinner, he bombarded her with elaborate explanations of the respiratory and circulatory systems. He sat beside her at her desk and talked her through the dissection of a bullfrog. She was given three stethoscopes, a microscope, a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and a teaching skeleton. One evening, her father even launched into a cumbersome explanation of the monthly shedding of the uterine lining, aided by a series of diagrams and charts—only recently, when Juliet woke in the night to a red streak on her underwear, did she realize he’d been describing the feminine “curse.”
“The experiment is stupendous,” Juliet answered, climbing the stairs. “But I’m coated with baking flour. Practically breaded. When Tuck comes home, would you tell him to come find me?”
Juliet drew a hot bath and surrendered her legs, then torso to the steamy porcelain tub. The water whitened with soap and flour. She stared dully at a spidery crack on the ceiling, chips of plaster dangling precariously. Life suddenly felt impossibly long, impossibly dreary.
The feeling of Beau’s hand covering her cheek came back to her. How could she have been so stupid? So gullible? She slid her shoulders down until the water washed over her scalp. She wanted to be swallowed, to be gloriously erased.
But the probing softness of Beau’s tongue also returned—the warmth, the startling wetness, the momentary thrill of her parted lips. It was all so vivid, so confusingly tangible. The taste of him—salty? yeasty?—lingered on her teeth. Juliet drew in a mouthful of bathwater, swirled it around, and spat it at the drain.
As she stepped from the tub, she studied herself in the mirror. You’re getting womanly, Juliet. In the past year she had grown an inch, and the nipples that had once been mere insect bites had acquired a sudden conical alertness. She thumbed them down and watched them spring back. Was she supposed to cover them? Wear a brassiere? The flesh on her hip bones, too, had risen, thickened, so that her hips sloped elliptically from her waist. All that trouble getting people to ignore her birthmark—and now this? She couldn’t very well expect people not to notice when she herself found these fleshy additions somewhat mesmerizing.
Leaving a trail of wet footprints down the carpeted hall, Juliet shoved closed her bedroom door. The room was an embarrassment of pink. The princess wallpaper had, fortunately, been lost for years beneath periodic tables and circulatory-system posters. The mauve carpet was haphazardly tiled with textbooks and magazines.
Juliet threw herself onto her bed. It was Sunday, and the realization that she might see Beau in school the next day made her groan. From downstairs she heard her father and Pearl arguing, interspersed with the unusual sound of a forbidden news broadcast. What would Tuck think, coming home to hear the news blaring? Outside her window, wind rustled the massive dogwood and swept coolly into her room, ballooning the graph-paper calendar tacked above her bed. Juliet stared at the Monday three weeks away—already circled with her blue pen—the first day of eleventh grade.
At the suggestion of her teachers, Juliet was about to skip the second half of tenth grade. She was thrilled. She adored the promise of a fresh start, sometimes reading only the first chapter of a book so that her mind could chart its own course through the drawing rooms of London or the dark, crowded streets of the French Revolution. In this way the story never ended; the characters lived in her mind like the cat in Schrödinger’s quantum box, in a glorious state of perpetual possibility. Juliet would, years later, think that as she lay there in her room that night, she, too, existed in perpetual possibility. So much was taking shape around her but only touched her once her door opened and Tuck, all hulking six feet of him, stood in the threshold of her room. The moment she saw his face she knew that something serious had happened. He still wore his football uniform, the knees grass stained, shoulder pads uneven.
“Jules.” He walked to her bed and sat on the edge, raking his hand through his thick curls. The sight of him always dazzled Juliet. Where she was awkward and sinewy, her brother was muscular, vigorous. His face was broad and square; his dark-brown eyes were set unusually far apart. He was not handsome in the classical sense, but his robust masculinity drew an endless stream of girlfriends. At seventeen, he was the captain of the football and basketball teams. Walking, pacing—even waving good-bye—could be, for Tuck, an athletic display. He always made her feel safe, but something in his expression at this moment made her heart constrict uncomfortably. While the sound of the radio drifted up from downstairs, he twisted the corner of her coverlet.
“It’s the news, isn’t it?” she said. “What happened?”
Tuck looked at her. “I don’t know what’s going on now. But earlier today the Japanese bombed some American ships in Hawaii. It’s serious, Jules.”
“How many ships?”
“How many planes attacked?”
“I don’t want to give you nightmares.”
“Come on, Tuck. You should have seen me this afternoon. I’m a maker of explosive devices. I don’t scare easily.”
“Hundreds. There were people on the ships, Jules. And nearby. A lot of people. Innocent people.”
Juliet remembered an airplane accident she had once seen: when she was nine, riding in the car with her father, a biplane above them suddenly growled and smoked and hurled swiftly, nose first, into the ground; it flipped several times, dropping two of its passengers, and finally crashed into a barn from which people ran screaming. Her father had instructed her to stay in the car while he rushed to the flaming debris, hoping to find someone he could save. For weeks afterward, Juliet had trouble sleeping, recalling all those shrieks for help.
“Are we part of it now?” she asked.
Tuck nodded slowly. “The country is at war.”
The words seemed to hang strangely in the air. They had discussed so many things over the years—their mother’s death, their father’s drinking, Pearl’s uncomfortable presence in the house—but nothing of this magnitude.
Tuck tugged off his shoes and lay back beside her, sinking heavily into the mattress. Juliet inched close. The radio downstairs had quieted. Her brother breathed noisily, thoughtfully staring at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry I missed the big experiment.”
Outside the light was fading, and a wintry purple sky sprawled beautifully behind the darkening treetops. For a moment the world seemed utterly silent. Entirely peaceful. The thought of a bombing was wildly improbable. Juliet turned on her side, faced her brother, and drew her knees snugly to her chest.
“We’re at war,” Tuck said again, as though studying each word. He brought his hands together and slowly thrummed his fingers. His eyes narrowed and his jaw worked itself in a tense circle, and she sensed in his expression something more than anxiety. It was the look he had before a big game: excitement.
Juliet closed her eyes.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Secret of Raven Point includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It’s 1943 when seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted older brother pleading for help, and then finds out he’s been reported missing overseas. Shy and awkward, Juliet lies about her age and volunteers as an army nurse to find him. She is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, stationed north of Rome where she forges new friendships with her fellow nurses and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients. Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court martial, may hold the answer to Juliet’s brother’s fate—but the trauma of war has left him unable to speak. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Henry Willard, to heal Barnaby’s psychic wound before the authorities take him away and any clues as to her brother’s fate are forever lost. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s combat memories, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war, and face the dangers of their own deepening connection.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the beginning of the novel, Juliet’s identity is largely determined by her relationship to her brother and what it means to be “Tuck’s little sister.” How does Juliet’s sense of self change throughout the novel?
2. How was Juliet affected by her mother’s death and growing up without a female role model? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life? How does it affect her relationships with men? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life?
3. Which character did you find the most compelling? Which character did you empathize with the most? Why?
4. Consider Juliet’s role as a nurse at the front in Italy. How does she mature throughout her time in Italy? How does she show her bravery? Does her personal desire to get information from Barnaby in any way undermine her role as his nurse?
5. How do the nurses and doctors at the front cope when they’re confronted with death and the fragility of life on a daily basis? How does this affect the way they perceive the value of human life? Consider this passage from page 49: “Skin and ligaments held it all together, the entirety of the mass of flesh she called herself. But no bone of hers looked much different from someone else’s bone; her femur would roughly mirror the femur of any soldier on the operating table; none of the flesh she’d seen in the hospitals—the torn muscles, the exposed stomachs, the broken ribs—had anything to do with the people it belonged to. The same delicate pieces made up everyone, and if the wrong pieces or too many pieces broke, the whole person ceased to exist. Juliet had witnessed this daily for months, and yet the strangeness of it never subsided.”
6. How did you react to Barnaby’s stories during his sessions with Dr. Willard? How did these stories of being bullied by Captain Brilling and the other soldiers paint a picture of life at the front?
7. In what way does the novel’s depiction of World War II support or undermine your previous understanding of that war? Consider the story Dr. Willard tells about the Goumier soldiers after the battle of Monte Cassino. Is the battle fatigue Dr. Willard is treating similar to what soldiers experience in today’s conflicts?
8. Consider what Juliet’s relationships with Beau, Dr. Willard, and even Brother Reardon reveal about her femininity and sexuality. Think about the contrast between Glenda’s social life at the field hospital and Juliet’s.
9. How does each of the characters deal with death and dying? How does Juliet come to terms with the thought that Tucker is dead? Consider this excerpt as Juliet discovers a corpse in the woods near the lake on their leave from the hospital: “The pain of death had always frightened Juliet, but she saw now that solitude wrought the greater horror. Had Tuck been left somewhere, abandoned?” (p. 133)
10. After Mother Hen’s death, Juliet discovers that Dr. Willard is not as stalwart in his beliefs as she thought he was. Why do Dr. Willard and the others work to heal men who may return to the front and die? Why did Mother Hen try to save a man that was already dying? How does this form Juliet’s concept of justice? In the end, is Juliet more frightened of death or an unjust world?
11. Brother Reardon has the courage to do what Dr. Willard and Juliet could not when he runs off with Barnaby. How does this moment provide each of the characters with an opportunity to redeem themselves?
12. Juliet is surprised to see Liberata again, her spirit reduced, her brother lost. Why is Juliet upset that Liberata no longer pleads for her help? What did the other characters lose in the war? What do they find?
13. How did you react to the letter that Juliet receives from Barnaby? Why do you think he decided to write to her? Should it affect Juliet’s memory of her brother?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pair your book club’s reading of The Secret of Raven Point with a nonfiction account of WWII. Try The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines or And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II.
2. Consider making a contribution, donating your time as a therapist, skilled professional or as an advocate for The Soldiers Project, which provides mental health support to veterans and soldiers. Learn more here: http://www.thesoldiersproject.org/how-to-help/.
3. Check out Jennifer Vanderbes’s previous books Strangers at the Feast and Easter Island. Visit her website at JenniferVanderbes.com.