Growing up in England and not having any particular interest in military fiction, my acquaintance with the American/Vietnam war has been casual at best, confined pretty much just to the musical Miss Saigon and Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, as well as the odd aside in books like Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis or Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. So I was a little surprised when, reading through one of the Nebula Awards collections which contained an extract of Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s novel, I was utterly captivated by the setting, the writing and the premise behind the book.
Lieutenant Kitty McCully is an army nurse in a hospital at the China beach base in Vietnam. Though as a female nurse she is kept well behind the lines and even Viet Cong rocket attacks on the base are more a source of annoyance than terror, yet everyday she is presented with a stream of war casualties, from wounded GI’s to Vietnamese civilians to even prisoners of war. Kitty tries to maintain a professional attitude and do her best not to get too stressed or caught up in the dislike of difficult colleagues. Above all, Kitty fears she’s losing her empathy and becoming simply cold. Yet, a mystical amulet Kitty unexpectedly comes into contact with from Xe, the old Vietnamese holy man will awaken Kitty’s understanding of others, give her a strange power of healing, and also provide her only hope of survival when she finds HERSELF lost and alone in the middle of a hostile country.
Though I was eager to read The Healer’s War, I admit it took me a surprisingly long while to get around to it since, given the extract in the Nebula collection, I expected the book to be pretty grim. Grim it undoubtedly is in places; even before things go severely wrong for Kitty. However, one thing which I definitely didn’t expect, was how often the book was funny. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, as well as collaborating with Anne McCaffrey, is famous for humorous fantasy novels and even from such an inherently dark setting as a hospital in the Vietnam war it's fairly easy to see why. Occasional bits of odd observational humour, small anecdotes or tales about her colleagues and patients, even a little artful crudity which Stephen King would admire (I’ll never think of Hershey bars the same way again), all make the book a wonderfully contrasting narrative, rather than an endless cycle of sorrow, which of course in turn makes the sorrow all the sharper.
Another fascinating thing about The Healer’s War, and something which was very evident to me from the extract in the Nebula collection, is that the book has a stark, complex immediacy to it. Coming from a medical family, much of the way that Kitty experiences life on the ward, with schedules, long hours, matter of fact descriptions of horrific wounds or medical conditions, patients who become friends and pushy bureaucratic superiors was rather familiar to me, even if the impetus of the war and the setting were extremely different.
It's easy to see that Scarborough was writing from personal experience (having been a nurse in Vietnam herself), experience, particularly with Kitty’s very flawed and human reactions to those around her, from the dire consequences of medical mistakes, to the casual way she approaches romance, to her at times strained reaction to the Vietnamese culture (especially to the reports of the horrific conditions in native hospitals). Indeed, speaking of natives, Kitty’s attitude and reactions to the Vietnamese culture as a whole are wonderfully flawed, especially in these days of strict political correctness, since while Kitty is certainly no racist, and indeed deplores the racist behaviour of some of her colleagues, she still has to occasionally face her own impulses or assumptions head on, such as when, on a leave to Taiwan she finds herself speaking pigeon English to well educated, English speaking Taiwanese, or feeling a stark relief when realizing that the plane she’s travelling on is not flown by an Oriental, moments which were both wonderfully uncomfortable, and yet completely and understandably real.
Speaking of friends, though everything is told in a strict first person perspective, we still become extremely close to a number of other characters. Indeed, it's notable that since most of the seriously wounded GIs would be evacuated out of country, all of the long term patients Kitty makes friends with are Vietnamese, people we get to know along with her, from Ahn, a rebellious one legged child, to the lordly holy man Xe. Indeed, Scarborough herself admitted that The Healer’s War is a intended as much to shed light on the Vietnamese who survived the war and the conditions they lived under, as much as explore the experiences of Americans. From the vivacious Sundi, to the courteous Lieutenant Lun, to the determined Thai, indeed the stark, brutal racism of one particularly unpleasant example of the medical profession is something we feel at an especially nasty second hand along with Kitty, indeed rarely have I seen an author tackle racism so honestly, and yet with such nuance.
With a heavy emphasis on character and Kitty’s experiences, the first half of the book naturally moves at a slower pace, indeed the amulet which is the book’s major fantasy element only makes a brief introduction, and Kitty takes the abilities it gives almost in stride, though given her twelve hour days and constant confusion it’s not too surprising. This doesn’t however mean the action was in any sense draggy or uninteresting, not with Scarborough’s engaging style and gift for anecdotes, whether humorous, horrible or simply human. In particular, Kitty’s at times touching, at times exasperating relationship with the ten year old Ahn.
Another interesting element in this half of the novel is Kitty’s experiences being one of the few western, English speaking women in a base full of men, experiencing attention that can range from flattering, to gallant to slimy, attention which she admits she does occasionally revel in, especially when it comes to quick, casual romances with handsome helicopter pilots. On the one hand I admired the way Kitty was very honest about the attention she received, and the fact that she chose to work in Vietnam partly out of sympathy for the men being drafted in the States. On the other I did find a few generalised comments about men a little odd, such as her note that amputee victims were eager to “prove themselves men”, though whether this was a 1960’s thing, a 1980’s thing or indeed a military thing I am not sure. I also appreciated Kitty’s honesty about many of her instinctive reactions, such as when she admits that even though there was more to her attraction to a man than just his good looks or having all body parts present, she might not have considered looking further to find those things if the good looks and intact body weren’t there to begin with.
Of course, this is a war zone, and we here about plenty of atrocities, from both Viet Cong and American troops, and then later in the novel when things really hit the fan we experience things first hand. The atrocities are pretty damn atrocious and talked of in the stark, uncompromising realism with which Scarborough approaches everything else. In particular, this is where the fantasy element comes into play, since in equipping Kitty with an amulet that can heal others and pick up mystical auras, Scarborough is able to discuss the motivation of those engaged in atrocities in a way which is surprisingly poetic, and yet frighteningly immediate.
While Scarborough admits herself that the chief purpose in giving Kitty the amulet was so that she could be lost in the jungle and actually survive, so that she could explore what life for the ordinary Vietnamese was like caught between two warring sides, at the same time the amulet itself does add a wonderful extra dimension. For example, one major character we meet later in the novel is William, a decent, good natured soldier who suffers extreme fits of irrational rage due to seeing all of his friends get slaughtered, and seeing the colours of his aura shift and change and how the war had shaped him was quite poignant, even as Kitty has to decide practically whether travelling through the jungle with such an unpredictable, though trained guide is a good idea.
Using the amulet Scarborough was able to give first hand views of atrocities that bit of extra added punch, since it's one thing to see innocent civilians being cut down, quite another when you realize the person involved with it is feeling almost nothing at all, or when you see that those supposedly on “your side” have just as much a predilection for violence as the enemy. I will admit it did stretch my credulity a little when the amulet started to give Kitty the ability to telepathically communicate with non English speaking Vietnamese, but since the amulet is definitely more of a plot device than a strictly defined magical artefact I was happy enough to go with this as just another part of the almost nightmarish bad acid trip the book became.
My only major problems with The Healer’s War occur towards the end. The book’s first half is a slow thoughtful character drama with characters we grow to love despite the inherently nasty setting. The book’s third quarter is a nightmarish acid trip into a deeply hostile place. The final quarter however things became somewhat aimless. While I appreciate that military paranoia and bureaucracy over Kitty’s recovery could definitely wind themselves in tortuous knots, actually having this happen was about as interesting as it sounds, after a truly horrific introduction, Scarborough’s paranoid general seemed to have been a lost plot thread, and some characters we meet at this stage, such as a friendly nursing sergeant, are given sketches which are too cursory to make us care about them as we did the characters earlier in the novel, and yet long winded enough to get in the way of something happening.
Sadly, one majorly lost thread here was the amulet, with Kitty simply bringing it back to America and literally shoving it in a draw. Given its central importance to the plot, even if Scarborough’s intention was not to put together a fantasy novel, closure of the amulet’s story would’ve been appreciated, especially with the major part played earlier in the novel, and some comments about the status of Xe its former owner and Kitty in some sense, carrying on his legacy. Speaking of closure, while I realize that part of Scarborough’s intention was to show just how much of a mess Vietnam was, at the same time, the fact that we here so little of any of the Vietnamese, or indeed American characters we took such a long while getting to know throughout the course of the story is downright disappointing.
Not that the book needed a big happy Hollywood reunion, indeed, given that the book’s ending delves heavily into themes of PTSD and how distant the Vietnam war was when back in America such a Hollywood reunion would’ve felt rather inappropriate, yet, a word or two, or at least some indication of the fate of characters besides Kitty would’ve been welcome, particularly characters like Ahn and William who’d played such a major role previously.
All in all The Healer’s War is an amazing book. Dealing with such complex themes as racism, war, atrocity, and yet still managing to be profoundly and compellingly readable with characters you really care about.
The Healer’s War is only very distantly a fantasy novel and yet it contains so many of the things that I personally love in fantasy. An alien and difficult setting, a flawed, human protagonist having to cope with a situation outside their control without the benefit of superpowers, even a very strange new way of looking at the world. Yet at the same time, it's still a damn good story, told with poise, humour and character. Despite a few issues with its final section and the way it handles its one fantasy element, it was a truly amazing story and one which definitely earned its Nebula award.
Review by Dark
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