The Women by Kristin Hannah

Review by Irene Pearcey

Coronado Island, California May 1966

On a beautiful and peaceful California evening as family and friends said farewell to Finn McGrath, his sister Frances found herself alone in her father's study staring at the "heros" wall. A wall filled with the memorabilia of her family. "Men in uniforms, women in wedding dresses, medals for valor and injury, a triangle-folded and framed American flag that had been given to her paternal grandmother." Frances (Frankie) wanted to be a part of that wall, but while the path to honor was laid out for men, it was not so clearly defined for women.

Finn was leaving for Vietnam, to a war that raged thousands of miles from the peaceful golden sands of California beaches and Frances was finishing her nursing degree.

Frankie wrote to her brother every Sunday for six months and then one quiet November evening the doorbell rang and "two Naval officers in dress uniforms stood there at attention".

Frankie joined the Army Nurse Corps and by the end of March she was on a flight to Vietnam.

Second Lieutenant Frances McGrath landed in Vietnam amid the heat, humidity, stench and the sounds of bombs exploding in the distance. She was assigned to the Thirty-Sixth Evac Hospital, a four-hundred bed hospital sixty miles from Saigon. A hospital that provided care for "VSI's, Very seriously injured".

For the duration of her tour, Frankie was housed in a small rectangular wooden building surrounded by sandbags, with showers and latrines a stones throw away from her "hooch" that she shared with Barb and Ethel, two seasoned Army Corps nurses who would become her link to physical, mental and emotional survival in the days and years to come.

And so began Fankie's first tour of duty in-country. She would save men, write letters to loved ones for those who had lost arms, hands, and sight. She held their hands as they took their last breath. She saw first hand the devastation that a "bouncing betty" could cause to a fragile human body. Frankie served two tours in Vietnam and returned home to a country that she did not recognize and to a family that had never acknowledged her service to her country and a father who had not and would not put her photo on the "wall of heroes".

She was spat upon, ignored by the Veterans Administration because she had not served on the front lines. Her time spent putting men back together was ignored by hospital administrators and she began her nursing career back home as a relative "newbie". Frankie, like so many others returning from an "unpopular" war struggled with horrific memories, betrayal, lost loves and eventually an addiction that was the only escape available to her.

Kristin Hannah has shown a light upon the dark days of the US involvement in Vietnam, the despair returning soldiers and nurses felt upon their return. Ms. Hannah takes us on a journey that is both painful and enlightening. While this is a book of fiction, I fear there is more truth in it than we care to admit.

The Women struck a very personal cord with me. I am the mother of a Navy Corpsman and this novel, this story brought me to tears. I have heard my son's stories of the ravages of war, the doubt, the fear, the loss. This novel is a tribute to those who have saved and served and a reminder that not all those who return from war have carried a weapon or served on the "front lines".