Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, September 7, 2023

Thursday September 7, 2023: Maximum Shelf: The Women

St. Martin's Press: The Women by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's Press: The Women by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's Press: The Women by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's Press: The Women by Kristin Hannah

The Women

by Kristin Hannah

A bright young nurse enlists in the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War with the hope of making a difference, and faces the horrors of war and the turmoil of returning home in The Women, an epic, yet intimate, and heart-wrenching historical fiction saga by Kristin Hannah (The Four Winds). Through meticulous research and intricate character development, Hannah resurrects the voices of war's overlooked heroes: the women.

Twenty-year-old Frances "Frankie" McGrath has grown up with all the advantages her father, a California real estate developer, can afford. Her upbringing and parochial school education have "instilled in her a rigorous sense of propriety," and her mother urges her to slow down at nursing school and focus on finding a husband. The social unrest in the United States in 1966 seems far from her sheltered life, as does armed conflict in Vietnam. Her father has raised Frankie and her older brother, Finley, on stories of their family's military service and keeps a "wall of heroes" with photos of male relatives in uniform, though he himself was unable to serve. When Finley ships out for Vietnam with the Navy, Frankie feels left behind until Finley's best friend Rye makes an astonishing pronouncement: "Women can be heroes." When she realizes nurses can serve in the military, Frankie races to enlist, too. She hopes she and Finley might serve together, but her plan hits a snag: the Navy won't take a nurse without hospital experience. So Frankie signs on with the Army, too naive to understand the implication of its readiness to accept her--they are desperate, being on the front lines. She's shocked when her parents find her enlistment embarrassing and foolish. "It is not patriotic to do something stupid, Frances," her mother says. Then two naval officers come to their house bearing news of Finley's death in action. Frankie's family is broken by the tragedy, and for the first time, Frankie understands the danger in her choices.

Arrival in Vietnam gives Frankie a quick series of rude awakenings. Her plane draws gunfire, she unwittingly drinks unsafe tap water, and she must jump from a hovering helicopter while wearing regulation Army pumps and an excruciatingly uncomfortable panty girdle. A mass casualty event shortly after her arrival at her assigned evac hospital plunges her into a nightmare of blood, chaos, and destroyed young men. The wounded pour into the ER and are sorted by whether or not medical help can save their lives. As she adjusts to life "in country," she is supported by fellow nurses Ethel, a horse-loving Virginian, and Barb, an African American from the Deep South. Frankie sees life and death up close as she tends to soldiers and Vietnamese villagers. Updates from the home front come in letters from her mother, who complains of the protests brought on by the civil rights and anti-war movements and warns her daughter, "The world changes for men, Frances. For women it stays pretty much the same."

Until her homegoing in 1969, Frankie grows as a nurse and as an independent woman, strengthening lifelong friendships, and falling in life-changing love. War may be hell, but what she finds when she returns home is no paradise, either: a country furious about the Vietnam War and taking out its anger on veterans; a family that wants to pretend she never went to war; and hospitals that don't consider her work experience valid. Adrift and struggling with the aftermath of her experiences, Frankie is left wondering why her service to her country is treated like a mark of shame at best, and a lie at worst, and how she can ever move forward.

Frankie begins the story as crisp and clean as a fresh sheet of paper, but her innocence is quickly smudged, creased, and ripped until she crumples. Hannah shows readers that even if a crushed page can never be fully cleaned or smoothed, it still has space to hold a beautiful story. Like the real women who served as nurses in Vietnam, Frankie comes home to a lack of support and recognition. Even when she reaches out for help, she is told to forget the war or, amazingly, that no women served in it. This erasure of her work and sacrifice will likely elicit gut-wrenching anger and pity from readers, but Frankie is fortified by the power of enduring female friendships. The turbulent late 1960s and disillusioned early 1970s serve as a rich backdrop for her personal story, and Hannah works in an enormous amount of atmospheric detail, pop culture references, and historical fact without ever turning the novel into a civics course.

Through the lens of Frankie's point of view, Hannah sensitively reckons with the tangle of horrors and heroism attached to one of the United States' most controversial military conflicts. Book clubs, fans of epic stories with deep character work, and anyone curious about the vital, often ignored contributions of women in war will fall in love with The Women. --Jaclyn Fulwood

St. Martin's Press, $30, hardcover, 480p., 9781250178633, February 6, 2024

St. Martin's Press: The Women by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah: Uncovering Women's Lost Histories

(photo: Kevin Lynch)

Kristin Hannah is an award-winning, number-one bestselling author with more than 25 million copies of her books sold worldwide. Her most recent titles, The Four Winds, The Nightingale, and The Great Alone, won numerous awards and her earlier novel, Firefly Lane, became a top series on Netflix. Hannah is a lawyer-turned-writer and the mother of one son; she and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle. Shelf Awareness recently chatted with Hannah about heroism, the tumult of history, and The Women (coming from St. Martin's Press, February 6, 2024), a story of a young woman who goes to the Vietnam War, and the nurses who served there.

You were still a child when the Vietnam War happened. What was your impression of it at the time?

It had a profound impact on me at the time and over time. I was of the age that my friends' fathers were going to Vietnam. There was a lot of talk at the kid level about that. We were watching it as a family on the news in the evening. There were only a couple of networks, so it was front and center. I had a girlfriend from elementary school whose father was shot down in 1967. I began wearing one of those MIA/POW bracelets that we wore back then. They had the name of a military person, and when he was lost, you would wear this bracelet until he came home. I wore mine for years and years and years. Later, when I was older, it became apparent to me how the returning vets were treated, how the country felt about the war, and how the country felt about the warriors.

What historical perspective did you have when you started this project? What made you feel so strongly about telling the story of women in the war?

Writing The Nightingale was the first time I understood that I was drawn to women's lost histories in time and that, when we read about them, everything came from a male perspective. I began seeking out women's stories. It coincides roughly with me turning 50. I began to look at not only my life in retrospect, but the world in retrospect. I tried to figure out what I had to say to my daughter-in-law, to my granddaughter, and to kids. I first proposed this book to an editor in 1998. That's how long I have wanted to write it, but I always felt that I didn't have enough gravitas to look back at this time period that was so seminal for me and for the country. In the last few years, it's been impossible to ignore the great divide in American politics and the differing ways that people feel about our country. It brought up Vietnam to me, because that time felt very volatile, very turbulent. I thought, "Okay, this is the moment where I'm going to write this book that I've always wanted to write." It's terrifying, because it's a big topic. So many people that I am writing to lived through it, and are at an age to understand it better than I'm able to through research and interviews. Once I began to look at the Vietnam War from a female perspective, I realized this was an incredibly important story that needed to be told. I wanted to tell it while the nurses could still read it.

Why do you think the heroism and contributions of women are so minimized?

It speaks to a larger question: Why is the heroism and courage of marginalized people forgotten? It comes down to who was writing the books, who was telling the stories, who was looking for the stories. When I do research, the stories are out there. They just aren't picked up. I'm happy to be living in a moment when other stories and other voices are being heard and celebrated.

What gave you the ambition to tell a story with so much history and depth?

That was the struggle from the get-go. How do I take this huge, complex historical situation, which so many people remember, which had so many facets that didn't have the good and evil of, for example, World War II, that didn't have the clarity of some historical periods? How do I say what I have to say about the war--America, women, coming of age. The answer was the creation of this character, this one woman, and to look at the entire landscape through her eyes. I created characters like Barb and Ethel to expand her worldview and to open it up a bit and to teach her that there was more to the world than what she had grown up seeing in her sheltered family. It's one woman moving through history even as she is trying to grow up and find out who she is.

How did you develop the character of Frankie?

Frankie represents a large number of the nurses I spoke to. A lot of the women who became nurses and went to Vietnam voluntarily were very sheltered. This was the '60s. They were taught to be a certain kind of woman, a lady, and to look for marriage as their ultimate goal. I wanted to speak to that. She was a kind of woman that I understood deeply. I knew she would represent this story of getting to Vietnam and realizing, "I'm not in Kansas anymore, and what did I sign up for?" And then the story would go on through the evolution of her strength and her durability, and her breakdown, which comes in large part because not only was there little help for any Vietnam vets, there was no help for female vets. I've written about war from various perspectives, but something I feel strongly about is our country's responsibility to care for our veterans and their families in whatever manner they need.

For me as an author, Frankie finding herself, owning her own past and believing in who she is, and being able to stand up and say "I was there"--I'm proud of it. It felt like such an important and empowering arc.

What do you hope readers will take from this story?

I had a fascinating first read early on from a bookseller who wrote me a long letter explaining about her father who had been in Vietnam. He had stepped on a landmine and been badly injured. He came home, and his pain, his injury, and his service became a confusing and difficult time for her as a young girl. She said she spent her whole life working through her father's Vietnam service and what it did to their family. She said, "But in all those years, never once did I think about the nurses who saved him." I want people to recognize these remarkable women, eight of whom died, who put their lives, their youth, their patriotism, and their emotional health on the line to help others. Coming out of Covid and once again seeing the medical community paying such a personal price to help others, it's important that we all recognize this service and show gratitude for it. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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