Popular, prolific author Kristin Hannah has made a name for herself with a long list of bestsellers over the years, including “The Nightingale,” (2015) a personal favorite that snagged me from the first page.
Hannah’s newest, “The Women” is a novel on many must-read lists for 2024, a book about Vietnam she claims was in her head for many years, but a story she felt she had to mature as a writer to bring to fruition.
She succeeds beautifully in her readable, 471-page narrative about nurses who served in the war, an overlooked group of women who did their time in Vietnam, facing death and uncertainty as they worked alongside doctors, ministering to the critically wounded, giving their all in a war that grew increasingly violent and unpopular.
When readers meet the book’s protagonist, 20-year-old Frances McGrath, she’s leading a predictable, protected life with her parents in Coronado, California, doing what is expected of a young woman in an era when female career choices were limited to being a teacher, secretary, or nurse--the most coveted accomplishment becoming a housewife and mother.
It’s 1966 and Frances’ well-to-do parents host a party for Finley, her brother, who is leaving for Vietnam, following in the footsteps of the men in the family, “heroes” who served in the armed forces and were well respected for their service. Frances is private-school educated, a white-glove-clad-pretty who follows rules and doesn’t fail in meeting her family’s expectations.
While Finley is away, Frances finishes nursing training. In her job at a San Diego hospital, one of her patients is a Vietnam vet, an amputee who is suicidal, his condition foreshadowing some aspects of Frances’ fate. This chance meeting, a desire to help in the war, and the opportunity to perhaps see Finley overseas, serve as the impetus for Frances to break with tradition and become an Army Corp Nurse. After basic training she will leave for Vietnam. When she tells her parents she's enlisted they are shocked at her decision—their fury turning to grief when they get news that Finley has died in Vietnam.
Though Frankie has misconstrued ideas about what awaits her as an Army nurse, the reality of her situation becomes glaringly real when she’s thrown into service at a hospital 50 miles from Saigon treating the seriously injured. Her entry into a world of mayhem and misery is shocking and sad, and Frankie is frozen with fear, feeling inept at every turn. Fortunately, two experienced, kind-hearted nurses take Frankie under their wing, offering support in her transition. Barb and Ethyl become lifelong friends to Frankie, even after Vietnam.
The strength in “The Women” is Hannah’s storytelling skills, her ability to establish a vivid, realistic picture of Vietnam and post-war America. In these settings, readers observe Frankie’s struggles and growth in a time when women’s roles were vastly different than they are today. Frankie is wholly human and vulnerable, and though at times we might lose patience with her, Frankie’s missteps and angst are understandable. She is continually misunderstood by her parents; must deal with grief and crushing disappointment; and finally find the courage to face herself, one day at a time.
As Frankie takes one step forward and two steps back, readers will find themselves cheering her on.