The idea to write about nurses in combat zones in the Vietnam War came easy, novelist Kristin Hannah says.
The writing? Not so much.
“The Vietnam War was such a shadow across my childhood,” Hannah says of her earliest inspiration for her new novel, “The Women.” “My friends’ fathers were serving, and in fact, my best friend’s father was shot down and lost.
“I didn’t understand all of the complexities, but I knew that the country was angry and divided,” she says. “You know, we were watching the aftermath and what was happening in the war on a nightly basis. So it just made a really big impact on me.”
So around 1996, after half a dozen or so novels, Hannah decided to base her next book on women who served in the war.
And then: “The truth was, I just wasn’t a good enough writer at that point,” she says. “Because I knew this story was really important, or at least I felt it was important, and I really wanted to be able to write it to the best of my ability.”
She was a new mother at the time, too, so when her editor urged her to set it aside until she felt ready to write it, she did. And there it sat, surfacing occasionally for new beginnings, only to be put aside again until 2020 when the pandemic arrived.
“I had turned in ‘The Four Winds,’ actually the week that Seattle went on lockdown,” says Hannah, who lives on Bainbridge Island, referring to her previous novel. “Here we are, trapped in our homes for quite some period of time. And I was watching the nurses and the doctors in the medical community, and the price that was being exacted on them by this pandemic.
“Somehow this confluence of being trapped and being reliant on the medical community, and seeing the cost that they were paying to help us, led me back to the Vietnam female nurses,” she says. “I thought, ‘OK, I can’t go anywhere. There is no excuse for me not to write this book now, because it feels even more relevant. Our country is divided once again, and so it all felt very familiar.”
The protagonist of “The Women” is Frances “Frankie” McGrath, a 20-year-old Southern California nurse who in 1966 decides to follow her older brother Finley to Vietnam.
She arrives naively thinking she’ll be safely stationed far from the front only to be thrown into the visceral reality of the 36th Evacuation Hospital where wounded troops and civilians flood the operating rooms during frequent mass casualty events. She’s mentored by her bunkmates Barb and Ethel, nurses who’ve been there a few months.
Frankie comes to flourish despite the hard work and heartache she experiences in Vietnam. After signing up for a second tour of duty, and a transfer to the 71st Evacuation Hospital closer to the fighting, she comes home and finds that her reintroduction into civilian life is anything but easy.
“It wasn’t solely nurses in the beginning,” Hannah says of her earliest idea for the novel. “Then, once I read the memoirs of these women and understood what they had lived through, and how heroic and tragic their stories are, I just thought, I cannot believe that this story hasn’t really been told.”
The decision to focus on Frankie, a daughter of privilege from Coronado Island off San Diego, rather than Ethel, a farm girl from Virginia, or Barb, a young Black woman from the South, came partly because the California background matched the early life of Hannah, who was born in Garden Grove.
“I felt comfortable with that world, Southern California,” she says. “I sort of understood it, and I understood the naivete that comes from a bubble world like Coronado. You know, I live on an island in Washington. And I wanted this nurse to go over as starry-eyed and naive as possible.
“In terms of the research, the lion’s share of the memoirs I read were very much young women who had just finished their nursing degree and went over for adventure or patriotism. Or following someone,” Hannah says. “Because they volunteered. They couldn’t be made to go and so they chose to go.
“And so I wanted the kind of woman where it made sense that she would be, I guess, naive enough to think, Oh, I’ll go to the war. That’ll be OK. I’ll be far from the front. I’ll be fine.’”
Those real-life accounts, whether written or told directly to Hannah by former nurses she met along the way, also included key details of the difficulties of returning home from the war.
In addition to the PTSD the women experienced from their time face-to-face with the horrific damage the machines of war could do to a human body, many back home discounted their service, saying to their faces, as Frankie experiences in the book, that there were no women in Vietnam.
“She’s constantly told, ‘No, there were no women. No, we don’t have help for you; you don’t belong here,’” Hannah says of the resistance Frankie faces whether seeking services at a VA hospital or attending a Vietnam veteran’s march. “I thought to myself, that really can’t be true. It can’t be true with the VA. It can’t be true among Vietnam vets — male Vietnam vets.
“Yet when I began speaking to the women who had been there, they all had memories of being told by people who ought to know better, that there were no women there,” she says. “And their response was very much, ‘Well, if you didn’t [come into contact with the nurses serving there] then you were lucky.’ Meaning you weren’t in one of these hospitals, you weren’t in these places.”
After a march by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Washington, D.C., Frankie comes across volunteers for the League of POW/MIA Families, and ends up buying a silver cuff bracelet on which the name of a missing soldier and the date of his disappearance are engraved: “Maj. Robert Welch 1-16-1967.”
If you were alive during the Vietnam War, you might remember these. They were sold to keep alive the memories of the missing and to raise money to advocate to find and bring them home.
“I think I got (mine) when I was probably about 10 or 11 years old,” Hannah says. “It was Robert Welch, and he was my good friend’s father. The idea was we wear these until he comes home. Of course, as a young girl, it never occurred to me that he wasn’t going to be coming home.”
In “The Women,” the bracelet, and eventually going to work as an advocate for POW/MIA families, and later, for women who served in Vietnam and are struggling at home, helps Frankie regain her balance in life.