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The Women Bets On...

The Women

February 2024

I remember watching the evening news with footage from the Vietnam War. Walter Cronkite supplied the daily commentary of what was happening on the battlefields. It was the first time that a war was being shown in real time on television. Each night, I felt like we heard about napalm, Agent Orange and the jungle, and it was all so remote and alien. It also was a war that divided America deeply, and I recall watching protests, seeing draft cards being burned, and when the soldiers came home, there was lots of talk about how they were not treated as heroes. And when we left Vietnam, I remember the South Vietnamese clinging to the aircraft as we fled the country with a war neither won nor lost.

However, what was missing from all of this coverage and conversation were the women who served on the battlefields as nurses. I confess that until I heard the subject of Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, I never even thought about their roles in the war. But now, after reading THE WOMEN, I have a firm sense of what it must have been like to be a war nurse there.

Kristin brings these women to life with the story of Frances “Frankie” McGrath, a privileged woman from a southern California conservative family who headed overseas to serve as an Army nurse. Frankie is quickly enveloped not only in the heat and humidity of the jungle, but also in the rush and urgency of the medical needs of war as helicopter after helicopter lands with badly wounded soldiers. She is seeing young men whose bodies are broken, many of whom are her age or younger. She grapples with making life-and-death decisions and dealing with consequences when her reactions are not “right,” not realizing that in Vietnam you do the best you can every day, which has to be enough. She forges friendships with other nurses, who become lifelong friends. They are bonded by their shared experiences.

About halfway through the book, these women return home. We then get to see what happened to them when they come back as they are not viewed as heroes. In fact, they are seen as anything but. They go through the same PTSD as their male counterparts. They withdraw the same way as they try to come to grips with returning to a very different world. A divided country. When Frankie asks for help at the VA, she is told that no women were in Vietnam. While she needed to process what happened, others wanted to pretend that nothing happened.

Kristin does a brilliant job of bringing these characters to life. I think it’s her best book, though many may consider THE NIGHTINGALE to be their favorite. What I know is that she has brought us a story that shows another side of the news we were watching each night. And her attention to detail in her research means that we feel like we were with these women both overseas and at home.

I hope that many of you can attend our “Bookreporter Talks To” event on Wednesday, March 6th at 7pm ET when Kristin joins us to talk about THE WOMEN.

The Women
by Kristin Hannah