1616 Nurse on the front line

A Time of Light and Shadow: To Asia, Africa, and the Long Way Home
by Ella Harvey

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2022
$28.00  /  9781771605694

Reviewed by Margot Fedoruk


Come come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair. — Rumi

Ella Harvey’s life is expertly depicted in her latest memoir A Time of Light and Shadow: To Asia, Africa, and the Long Way Home. Harvey is a self-described restless spirit, compelled to travel to exotic places to find her own truth by making connections, whether as a tourist visiting the Taj Mahal or as a nurse working on the front lines. Her book is filled with maps, photographs and insightful recollections gathered from pages of her saved journals spanning her travels from the 1970s to 2019. A Time of Light and Shadow is filled with well-wrought imagery of the sights, sounds, tastes, and emotions of a young nurse travelling the world alone.

Nurse Ella Harvey (right) at an International Red Cross camp in Cambodia, 1980

Ever since she was a young girl, Ella Harvey was inspired to travel abroad and live a life of purpose. “The human condition interested me more than history or museums or galleries,” she writes. A desire to make a difference is a common sentiment throughout her book as she works, travels, and falls in and out of love in Europe, Turkey, India, the Himalayas, Cambodia, and East Africa. No matter who approves or how harsh the conditions, Harvey is eager to experience the world and live as wildly as she dares.

From the very first chapter, readers will be caught by Harvey’s adventurous spirit as she leaves her home in Vancouver to work as a night nurse for the ageing artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) in Paris. But this was only a stepping stone. She was given only two hours to decide whether to head to Beirut to work as a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières. She accepts, and is whisked along a new life path. Her first assignment in Beirut, she writes, “fired my resolve to live life with purpose and to care for a cause.”

Ella Harvey and friends in the desert of Rajasthan, India, late 1970s

Readers will want to take the time to savour Ella Harvey’s inner journey and appreciate the sights and sounds of the new worlds she encounters, such as on her first trip to Italy:

In the sun-drenched city of water and stone, I walked the maze of narrow alleyways with bold red geraniums tumbling from windowsills onto ancient walls. People called out to each other in melodic language, as if every Italian were uttering a great truth.

Harvey’s retrospective narrative provides valuable insights throughout. When she hikes alone through the Himalayas she reflects,

I drifted into thoughts of home, my work as a nurse, my family, the problems of the world and my own irregular life. I had every freedom and opportunity, but a faint distress rumbled in my heart. I didn’t name it in 1978 but wonder now if it was my privilege that distressed me. I was too young then to understand the imperative of humanitarian work or putting one’s life on the line for justice or equality or peace.

Ella Harvey with a patient in Djibouti
Ella (Elaine) Harvey’s first book, Encounters on the Front Line. Cambodia: A Memoir (2015)

Harvey’s dedication to making the world a better place is evident when she accepts a difficult assignment in Djibouti, where she is plunged into the “cruel reality” of the disaster in East Africa. She explains, “I had to cope, be strong and be a competent nurse. It was the reality of working on a front line.”

Harvey’s first book, Encounters on the Front Line: Cambodia — A Memoir (Promontory Press, 2015) is a more in-depth account of the author’s time working as a nurse in Cambodia. “Certain years are pivotal over the course of a lifetime,” she writes. “1980 was that year. It came sweeping through my life, leaving a multitude of raw, gritty and heart-wrenching experiences in its wake. It began with a six-month assignment with the International Red Cross in the Cambodian refugee camps immediately after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.”

True to the book’s title, A Time of Light and Shadow offers tales of both darkness and light. Harvey’s journey leads her to many difficult places but also includes detours for love. In an unforgettable scene Harvey encounters a bronzed-faced man as she is walking alone along a Himalayan trail. “He pulled me up onto his horse and we rode off through a sparse forest of wind-stunted trees. I held on tight, and for one wildly exhilarating moment wrapped my arms around my Himalayan hero, my Nepalese knight.”

Woman and child at a leprosy colony in India
Ella Harvey of Victoria

When asked about her choice of the Rumi quote, “ours is not a caravan of despair,” Harvey explains:

In a caravan, you may find every sort of person and be jostled along a bumpy road with all that life brings — the joys and sorrows, beauty and hardships, hope and despair — but a caravan keeps moving down the road. Being aboard is what matters — experiencing and trusting the journey will take you to where you are going.

In her final chapter, “Of light and Shadow,” Harvey revisits India 30 years after her first trip. She has a vision that, “a younger woman is walking toward me, shimmering in and out of light and shadow. I think I’d like to say hello. I have met her before, somewhere along the way, then she moves aside and disappears in the crowd. I know she’s there watching me.”

A Time of Light and Shadow illuminates the life of a woman who moves through the world with real purpose, a wanderer who will inspire readers to pack up and head out into the world and try to make a difference, no matter how big or small: Harvey shows us that it’s the intention that matters. “Travel is our bridge to conscious engagement. In some small way, we are caring about the other,” she writes.

Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.


Margot Fedoruk

Margot Fedoruk’s first book, Cooking Tips for Desperate Fishwives: An Island Memoir, has just been published by Heritage House (October 2022). She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a writing degree from Vancouver Island University, where she was awarded the Barry Broadfoot Award for creative nonfiction and journalism and the Meadowlarks Award for fiction. She has studied with Susan Juby, Kathy Page, Sonnet L’Abbe, Frank Moher, Robert Hilles, Robert Wiersema, and editor Joy Gugeler. Margot lives and works on Gabriola Island. Please visit her website. Editor’s noteMargot Fedoruk has recently reviewed books by Jayne Doxtater, Bill SchermbruckerDawn Postnikoff & Joanne SasvariSusan LundyMyriam Steinberg, and Mandy Moore & Leanne Prain for The British Columbia Review, and she has interviewed Shelagh Rogers.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Travel books at Munro’s Books, Victoria, November 2022
Boy at Buddhist prayer wheels in Himalayan village, Nepal
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