A masterful depiction of a wartime heroine

Posted 6/17/24

Kristen Hannah has done it again with “The Women,” which has been #1 on Best-seller lists for weeks. Author of “The …

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A masterful depiction of a wartime heroine


‘The Women’ By Kristin Hannah


Kristen Hannah has done it again with “The Women,” which has been #1 on Best-seller lists for weeks. Author of “The Nightingale,” “The Great Alone,” and “The Four Winds,” this time she has crafted a deeply moving novel based on themes of war, love, betrayal, loss, family bonds, and undying friendship, much of which is intense.

Frances (“Frankie”) McGrath has been raised in a wealthy enclave in Southern California, a product of Catholic schools and country club parties. When her dear brother Finn, an Annapolis graduate, enlists to serve in Vietnam, her parents are proud that he is following a family tradition. However, some time later, when she enlists as an Army nurse, they are dismayed and distraught. Their expectations for her do not include war service, but she feels it is her calling to be a surgical nurse.

Deployed to Southeast Asia, she is shocked to discover the carnage on the battlefields and the mutilated bodies of the men who appear before her. Sometimes, all she can do is hold their hands and comfort them as they breathe their last. Working alongside two other women, Barb and Ethel, she develops a kinship in which they suffer terror, physical discomfort, chaos, exhaustion from never-ending shifts, and sorrow for those young men whom they cannot save.

Their camp, close to the action, is constantly bombarded by grenades, gunfire, and bombs. Power goes off in the middle of serious surgery, monsoon rains flood the barracks, sucking mud is omnipresent, mosquitoes and rats plague them at night while they try to sleep. Hannah describes all in minute detail, the charred bodies of those victims of napalm, the mangled limbs of those who stepped on grenades, the bloody entrails emerging from stomachs and intestines.

Although “green” when Frankie arrived, a quick learner, she has fast become a superior nurse who is valued by the surgeons whom she assists. Often in haste to treat other emergencies, the doctors leave it to her to close up wounds and complete the final steps of operations.

In addition to the conflicts of war, Frankie encounters romantic conflict, especially passionate when she falls deeply in love with a surgeon named Rye. When he confesses that he is engaged to someone back in the States, she steers clear of him as she is both moral, principled, and chaste. However much later, when she encounters him again, and he tells her he has broken off his engagement, they begin a torrid affair, an experience that awakens all her dormant senses. When once again stateside, she will be totally devasted to learn of his death in a chopper crash.

Given this monumental shock and the previous loss of her beloved brother, who also perished in Vietnam, she goes into a downward spiral of depression fueled by alcohol and pills, from which it will take months, years to heal. There are many twists and unimaginable turns to the plot, as Frankie discovers the truth about the man to whom she so completely gave her heart and virginity.

Hannah seems well acquainted with post-traumatic stress syndrome among Vietnam vets. If I recall, it was also the subject of a previous novel, “The Great Alone.” She is also well-informed about the unwelcome homecoming experienced by returning soldiers who encountered lack of gratitude for their service since it was an extremely unpopular conflict. Besides the public hostility Frankie experienced on her return home was the lack of understanding from her father, who ardently believed that war was for men only.

Even when she sought help from veterans’ groups, they declared that there had been no women in Vietnam, a total denial of her exemplary service saving so many lives. According to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, approximately 10,000 American females served there. Frankie’s greatest disappointment was the negation of her extreme sacrifice serving her country.

Hannah is a master of characterization, particularly in the development of Frankie, who evolves from an innocent, pampered, naïve debutant type to a competent, highly skilled, seasoned, battle-weary surgeon’s assistant who honorably confronts all the horror placed before her. Her suffering following two tours of duty is typical of many who returned damaged, emotionally and physically. America owes an incalculable debt to these heroes for what they lost in service – their innocence, their limbs, their sanity, and in many cases their future. Hannah does a creditable job in giving them their due, particularly the unsung heroines whom Frankie represents.

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

2024 by East Bay Media Group

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