Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: The Healer's War

Elizabeth Anne Scarborough
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The Healer’s War is a moving real-life account of one woman’s service in the Vietnam war in the guise of a good science fiction story.

The main character, Lieutenant Kitty McCulley, is a nurse at a U.S. Army hospital near China Beach. Her hospital treats wounded American GIs as well as South Vietnamese civilians. McCulley isn’t always great about keeping her cool or doing things exactly by the book but she genuinely cares about her patients and tries her best for all of them, whatever color they are.

The American soldiers usually stay for only a short time and then are shipped to better-equipped hospitals back home. The Vietnamese civilians, having nowhere else to go, tend to stay longer, and McCulley develops something of a bond with several of them.

One of her Vietnamese patients is a holy man, a healer, who had both legs blown off by a bomb. She cannot save him but before he dies, he gives her his magical amulet. The amulet reveals auras – clouds of color around people and animals that show how they are really feeling and where their pain is – and it also focuses her energy to give her tremendous powers of healing.

Both of these powers come in very handy when she is transporting one of her patients to another hospital and their helicopter is shot down, leaving her and her one-legged, ten-year-old patient to slog their way through miles of Vietnamese jungle until they are eventually captured by the Viet Cong.

While the jungle section contains most of the adventure in the book, my favorite parts were the first section, in the hospital, and the last little section, after McCulley gets back home to the States, because they are both so clearly based on the author’s own experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam and as a returning vet.

In the first section, Scarborough paints vivid pictures with details. Everyday life at the hospital is largely miserable for McCulley, with the smells (disinfectant, pot, latrines), the heat, the rain, and the bugs. Her nylons fuse to her legs with sweat and the plastic earpiece on the telephone has been melted by the bug spray everyone wears. She deals with so many angry, aggressive, and/or flirtatious soldiers that the nice ones can actually be the most unsettling. But, at the same time, Vietnam can be beautiful to her, with misty mountains covered in hundreds of shades of green.

The last section of the book is equally powerful. It doesn’t give away anything about the book’s central plot to say that when McCulley comes home from Vietnam, she is suffering from shock and trauma and is isolated from those around her. She has real trouble adjusting to life with relatives and friends who have no concept of what the war was like. It is very hard to watch her go sluggishly through the motions of trying to repair herself until she finally realizes she can’t do it all on her own.

I also very much liked McCulley’s personality. She’s a realist and she makes it easy to put yourself in her shoes. She’s exhausted and depressed by the war but she doesn’t make too many excuses for herself. She thinks of herself as an inept, incompetent nurse who isn’t doing a terrific job, and sometimes she does screw up, but her compassion and care for her patients come through loud and clear.

The only major knock I have on this book is that the power of the amulet goes a little too far; in particular, it eventually allows her to understand Vietnamese perfectly. This makes communication with her VC captors conveniently easy but it seems inconsistent with the amulet’s other attributes, which are more vague and impressionistic.

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