Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Women by Kristin Hannah

Title: The Women
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publication: St. Martin’s, hardcover, 2024
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: United States and Vietnam
Description: Frances “Frankie” McGrath has grown up in a conservative Catholic home near San Diego that reveres military service. When her beloved older brother graduates from the Naval Academy and leaves to fight in Vietnam, Frankie accelerates her nursing degree and enlists with the army herself. Her parents are horrified and do not consider her determination to serve as a nurse to be part of the family tradition. Frankie realizes when she arrives in Vietnam that she is woefully unprepared, that the conditions for nurses and medical care are appalling, and that the news of the war promulgated by the government at home is deliberately inaccurate. Still, she tries to make the best of the chaos and is aided by the two nurses with whom she shares quarters, one from a farm in Virginia and the other a black woman from Georgia. Their friendship, despite very different backgrounds, as well as support from other medical staff, will get Frankie past the first difficult weeks and help turn her into a combat nurse who saves lives. As importantly, Ethel and Barb will be there for Frankie time and again when she returns from Vietnam and tries to cope with a world that ignores the two most important years of her life and thinks she should just move on from her pain.

My Impression: This is an epic historical novel that focuses on the women who served in Vietnam and the challenges they faced after returning, as seen by a young idealistic woman from Coronado Island outside San Diego. Frankie grew up in a house with a wall of heroes, photos of family members who served their country, and after her brother leaves for Vietnam, she yearns to make her family as proud of her and to earn her place on that wall, as well as to share her brother’s experience. The Navy and Air Force are not willing to send a young nurse without experience straight to Vietnam but the Army promises to ship her out right after basic training. However, her parents are appalled by her enlistment and in a cruel twist of fate (and not the last Frankie will experience), her brother is killed in action before she even leaves California. This is a spoiler but it happens on page 20 in a 464 page book so I knew the suffering had just begun!

I don’t know if nurses who couldn’t cope with the brutal hours, endless casualties, and dangerous conditions (the recruiter promised Frankie would be at a big hospital far from the front; instead, the helicopter she arrives in gets shot at and the emergency room is a Quonset hut) got reassigned if they couldn’t handle the conditions. Thanks to new friends and her own determination, Frankie is able to cope with the horrors she sees (at least, short term), saving some lives and gently easing others’ passage into death. One thing that makes this story so vivid is how the exhausted nurses and officers relax by partying because they so desperately need to connect with people who are alive.
“That’s our ride?” Frankie said, frowning as they approached the helipad. Choppers might be big and maneuverable, but they were targets too. The enemy loved to shoot them out of the sky, and when a chopper exploded midair, there were often no remains to be found. She knew that all too well . . . .

Barb and Ethel each sat in one of the open doorframes, their feet swinging over the edge, laughing at the helicopter rose into the air and shot forward, nose down, tail up.

The noise inside the chopper was earsplitting.

As they banked left, Frankie saw Vietnam through the open doorway. The flat green swath of jungle, a brown ribbon of water, dotted with boats. White sand beaches bordered the turquoise waters of the South China Sea. Verdant mountains in the distance reached up into the blue cloud-strewn sky.
Inevitably, Frankie falls disastrously in love, more than once.

As painful as it is to read about casualties and gruesome operations, that is nothing compared to the welcome these nurses experience when they return stateside. Returning veterans are blamed for having served in an unpopular war while Frankie finds the average person doesn’t know women nurses were in Vietnam at all and veterans offices tell her to get lost. She doesn’t fit in at a traditional hospital, after having been given enormous responsibility in Vietnam, and has no support system other than Ethel and Barb at the other side of the country. Frankie’s situation is not unique but I was too young to appreciate what was happening in the United States, so learned a lot from this book. My only memory of Vietnam is a family trip to Cape Cod to say goodbye to one of my father’s closest friends who was being deployed. As we drove home, I heard my parents worrying that his size would make him an easy target. Amazingly, he survived two tours in Vietnam, serving in combat with ARVN engineers and with the U.S. First Cavalry Division, and ultimately retired as a Brigadier General.

The Women is an emotional read, with perhaps more tragedy and a lot more coincidence than is absolutely necessary, but Frankie is a convincing and all-too-human heroine about whom I enjoyed reading. The research and care that went into writing this book is very impressive – it feels like a labor of love to these undervalued nurses and a testament to female friendship.  I haven't been a huge fan of Hannah's recent books (too melodramatic or unrelentlessly miserable) so it was the topic rather than the author that interested me but I think it is the best book she has written. 
Source: Library. The Women is my third book for the 2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and my first 5-star review of the year.


Dewena said...

I've wondered about this book after seeing advertisements for it. She's not an author I read but the time period was certainly a big part of my life with so many friends serving there. It's such an embarrassment that our veterans were treated so poorly upon returning home. It's wonderful that your father's friend returned home safely and went on to lead so honorably. It's good that nurses' part in the war are being explored in a book for readers today.

Sam said...

I've never read Kristin Hannah, but this is a story that should be told and explored more often. Combat zone nurses never seem to get the credit they deserve; it seems like they are under-appreciated and quickly forgotten in every war. I'll look for this one.

Cath said...

I haven't read anything by Kristin Hannah but definitely mean to at some stage. Not sure this one is for me but I found your review fascinating, it sounds like quite a gruelling read!

CLM said...

Some of her books are too sappy or grim for me but she has evolved from writing fairly ordinary (but better than average) historical romance to well-researched historical fiction that still has too much romance for some. Her most popular book is The Nightingale, which to me was just another WWII novel. However, I felt all of this book was well done and convincing, even the romantic misfortunes that befall Frankie. I could never have been a nurse in such circumstances, if at all.

thecuecard said...

Wow great review! I too think that Hannah's books often go overboard on all the tragedy & suffering her characters face, whether it be during the Dust Bowls, WWII, or Vietnam etc. Still I'm eager to read this one due to the topic and time period. And you said you learned a lot from it. I have read only 1 of her novels, which was The Nightingale. But my is Hannah popular! I'm now #393 on the library wait list for the book ... with 69 copies in circulation. We'll see when I see it.

TracyK said...

This sounds like a really interesting book and a challenging read. But you give it such a high rating, I think it will be worth it, even at over 450 pages. I am surprised that I know so little about Vietnam and the fighting over there given my age and experiences.

CLM said...

I feel somewhat guilty about knowing so little about Vietnam. It is a truism that US History spends so much time on the Revolution and Civil War that the teacher has to rush through the 20th century. Except for writing a paper about Truman, I don't even remember discussing any 20th century history! Weirdly, a few years ago, I was at a meeting with my boss and a bunch of strangers, and when we went around the room introducing ourselves, I realized my HS history teacher was there, having moved on to a job in social justice! He did not remember me but I could have asked for some supplemental reading!

JaneGS said...

I want to read this, but just not sure about it. It does sound overly grim and as you said, full of coincidences. I liked The Nightingale, but I may give this a pass. Thanks for a great review.