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The Women


The Women

In THE WOMEN, Kristin Hannah has taken on an epic task: documenting the largely unknown contributions of women in the Vietnam War.

Frances McGrath grows up sheltered and privileged on Coronado Island near San Diego. Her father’s office features a wall of photos of the men in her family who have served in the military. So in 1965, when her older brother Finley enlists, no one is surprised and everyone is proud. Naively, 20-year-old Frankie expects a similar reaction when she is inspired to put her own nursing training to work overseas by joining the Army. She couldn’t be more wrong. Her parents are shocked and horrified, especially when Finley is killed in action.

"Grab your tissues. THE WOMEN moved me to tears on several occasions.... Frankie and her friends and lovers are well-drawn characters, and the novel’s pace will keep you reading."

In Vietnam, Frances’ transition to “Frankie” is swift. When Barb and Ethel, her two roommates at her post, meet her for the first time, she’s still wearing her girdle under her dress white uniform. But what is left of her naivety dissolves as she is thrust into action at the evac hospital 60 miles from Saigon, where very seriously injured soldiers are medevacked for triage and treatment.

Hannah’s descriptions animate Frankie’s new life as an army nurse with smells (feces and mildew), sounds (incoming helicopters and lapping waves), and sights (chest wounds and severed legs). Reading this section I really felt as if I was there --- in the operating unit working impossible hours, in the officers’ club drinking and dancing, and in Frankie’s hooch with the women who quickly become her best friends.

Over the next couple of years, we’re at Frankie’s side as she confronts both the horrors of war and the hard-won stolen moments of fun. Naturally there’s also Jamie, a handsome young (married) doctor, and a pilot she knew from home, Rye, to complicate matters. Her girlfriends had warned her, “Men lie and then they die.” But some things need to be learned firsthand.

Despite the propaganda they read in the Stars and Stripes newspaper, Frankie and her cohorts know that their government is lying about the war. They hear rumors of something bad up near My Lai: “The America Frankie believed in, the shining Camelot of her youth, was gone. Or lost.” Still, when Frankie returns to the States, she’s proud of her service but shocked when people in the airport turn away from her uniform or, worse, curse and spit. Even her parents can’t or won’t understand what she’s been through. She suffers from nightmares and bouts of intense anger, and increasingly relies on alcohol and pills to self-treat what we now recognize as PTSD. And when she goes to the VA for help, they insist that no women served in Vietnam.

Grab your tissues. THE WOMEN moved me to tears on several occasions. Although I was young, I remember the times that Kristin Hannah describes, and the way she weaves history, politics and cultural changes into Frankie’s life skillfully evokes the tumult of that period. Frankie and her friends and lovers are well-drawn characters, and the novel’s pace will keep you reading. Hannah has given us the story of unremembered women in an unpopular war. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on February 9, 2024

The Women
by Kristin Hannah