BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Women’ by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah’s latest book is historical fiction set in 1966 during the Vietnam War. The first part of the book takes place in Vietnam. The second part is about the return home to the United States. 

Frances “Frankie” McGrath has just completed nursing school. Her golden boy brother, Finley, has graduated from the Naval Academy and is headed to Vietnam. At Finley’s going away party, one of his friends tells Frankie that women can be heroes, too. Predictably, Finley is killed in a helicopter crash. As a way to deal with her grief, Frankie joins the Army and is sent to a field hospital in Vietnam. Before she can unpack, a helicopter loaded with wounded soldiers arrives. Frankie is frozen with fear and shock at the sight of the bloody men. A doctor shouts at her to get over it and scrub in for surgery.

She soon becomes a talented surgical nurse. Frankie’s bunk mates Barb and Ethel provide a support structure for her. Until then, Frankie has not smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. That soon changes as the Officers Club provides a place to forget the horrors the doctors and nurses see daily. The description of the wounded soldiers and sometimes the Vietnamese are gory to say the least. It is almost too descriptive to read. I found myself tempted to skip over the soldiers’ wounds. 

After Frankie serves two tours of duty in Vietnam, she returns home. She is shocked by her reception in the United States. She is greeted with hostility and disgust. Even her parents are ashamed of her participation in the war. She, like most the nurses stationed in Vietnam, suffers from PTSD. It is hard to receive mental health care because therapists are unaware that women were serving in Vietnam. Another thing that hindered Frankie’s return home was the way hospitals treated her. They did not give her credit for being a highly skilled medical professional. She is assigned menial jobs and criticized for attempts to do more for her patients.

Last fall, my husband and I visited Washington, D.C. We were surprised to see the memorial for the nurses who served in Vietnam. I wanted to learn more about them. The Vietnam Memorial was unveiled in 1982. It took 11 years for the women’s memorial to be unveiled. Diane Carlson Evans, a nurse in Vietnam, worked tirelessly to make sure the memorial was erected. The memorial honors the Army nurses and other women who served in Vietnam. Nearly 10,000 women served in Vietnam during the war. Seven-thousand were nurses. Many had just graduated from nursing school. A typical shift was 12 hours a day, six days a week. But many times they worked around the clock. The nurses did whatever was needed, directing triage, assisting with tracheotomies and amputations. Many times they worked in the dark while the hospitals were being attacked. PTSD was the norm among the nurses, who suffered from the stress of the number of patients they saw, the anger they felt seeing how young the soldiers were and their inability to save them all.

Kristin Hannah is the award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels. Read more about her and her work at www.kristinhannah.com.

Cathy Lay Mayor grew up in Cullman and graduated from Cullman High School in 1976. She says when she writes book reviews, she tries to remember what Mrs. Gilbert taught her in 11th-grade English.

She lived in Dothan for more than 30 years and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren. She retired to Panama City, but still calls Alabama home.