(pseud. Fanny Quincy Howe), ©1966
Cover illustration by Mort Rosenberg
Natalie Knight of the Navy Nurse Corps had come a long way from Oregon to the battle-torn plains and jungles of Vietnam. But it was a journey of love and devotion. She was looking for Tom, her Green Beret fiancé. He had been reported as missing, but Natalie did not give up hope. She knew that Tom, and hundreds like him, needed her because she was a Vietnam Nurse.
“You’ll have fun here, a knockout like you.”
Natalie Knight, known as “Lee,” has enlisted to serve as a nurse in Vietnam. Not out of any sense of duty or patriotism, but because she’s searching for her fiancé, Tom Lender, a Green Beret who went missing a year ago during a battle at the Cambodian border. “I’m sure he’s still alive, a prisoner of war,” she tells her roommate, Maggie Jackson. She resists Maggie’s brutal advice to “forget it, doll. He’s bound to be dead. They don’t just turn up again out of the blue.” Not surprisingly, Maggie and Lee do not hit it off, and indeed, Lee “cursed herself for having told Maggie her precious secret.”
Lee’s devotion to Tom is not depicted as entirely healthy. As a child, Lee “had been a gawky, even ugly child, that she had been left out of friendships and games and dates for many years.” And though now she is beautiful, “Lee herself still thought of her face and body as laughable.” This insecurity makes her withdrawn, and she’d been completely unsociable with the other nurses on the ship on their way to Vietnam. As a result, she now has essentially no friends on the staff. At one point, “she smiled at the diamond ring on her finger as if it were here only friend,” and that’s not far from the truth. Instead of socializing, Lee spends an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about Tom; Maggie even refers to Tom as Lee’s “dream lover.” We learn that Lee and Tom had been in high school together, he a few years older than she, and she’d only fantasized about hunky Tom Lender, “waited for the day that he would see her,” and it had been hero worship come to life when he eventually discovered her in their college years. Then he’d enlisted, and she’d visited him twice, he proposing just before he was shipped to Vietnam, two years ago. “He had lived in her imagination for many years. In a way, his disappearance didn’t matter to her because he had such a strong place in her mind.” Indeed, “her mind was fixed on Tom at all times.” This is a gal desperately in need of some therapy.
But where good psychiatric help is wanting, an interested man will do just as nicely: Lee soon meets another Green Beret, Johnny Winston, who promises to help Lee find out what happened to Tom. He takes her out and she talks to him for hours about Tom, but he clearly is interested in more than her stories, telling her that she is beautiful and that he would like to marry someone like her. She’s fearful and confused, but remembers Tom writing to her that if he should not return, she should find someone else, “and that way the dream will last.”
When she’s not dreaming, Lee works in the OR for six hours in the morning, then teaches a class on the medical ship S.S. Charity, parked off the Saigon shore. In the hospital, she meets a Vietnamese woman named Khai, who never merits a last name, and Khai becomes her only real friend. Khai takes Lee on a tour of Saigon, during which Khai lets slip the fact that she is married and that her husband Pham is away, but begs Lee not to speak of it at work. Lee, self-absorbed and incurious, wonders “why he was such a mystery, but then decided she knew nothing of life in this strange country and went to sleep.” Soon Maggie, who is ragingly jealous of Lee’s good looks, is claiming that Khai is Viet Cong and insists that Lee report her, or Maggie will report Khai, and Lee for abetting her. Lee declares that she does not want to get involved, and Maggie rightfully retorts, “What are you doing in the navy? You may be here for romantic reasons, but the rest of us are fighting a war against the Communists. Even little lotus blossom is fighting a war.” An excellent point.
Lee eventually asks Khai straight out, learning that Pham is Viet Cong, but Khai professes, war “is no solution and the terrible wounds we see are just a waste. I have no political affiliations.” But soon, tending to the wounded on a daily basis, Lee decides that she hates the men who are wounding and killing the American soldiers she nurses. She begins to feel “anger and rejection of the girl whose husband was a Viet Cong.” She does her best to remember that Khai is a friend, not an enemy, but “what held them together was the same situation that would split them apart: the war and the men they loved. When it came right down to the heart of the matter, each girl would side with the man she loved and thereby renounce their own friendship.” Eventually she asks Khai to see if she can find out what happened to Tom. “She had reached a point where she would, at last, believe what she was told about Tom’s whereabouts; she couldn’t go on dreaming much longer. She could now believe in his mortality and accept the fact of his death.” It’s not clear what exactly has led her to renounce her dream world, so this evolution in her character rings more than a little hollow.
It’s not too long before Khai returns with Tom’s dog tags, telling Lee that he had parachuted across the border into Cambodia and been badly wounded, seized and taken to a prison camp, but had died before he’d been tortured. Now that she knows the truth, Lee is ready to pack up and go home, but instead realizes that the American men she has been caring for need her help. “She had a duty outside herself now and it filled her with a new sense of freedom. She wouldn’t go home. She would stay in Saigon, where all her training and experience would be more useful. Out of the ashes of her dream, she would construct a full life for herself, for there really was no choice.” And find a new boyfriend; before too long, Lee is involved with Johnny. “She thought of Tom and promised she would try to make their dreams survive with Johnny.”
Khai eventually pulls away from Lee, saying that their friendship is “too difficult” because their allegiances are to different sides of the war. “Americans are innocent. You are a nation of children. Don’t you see? Things are not good and bad, but contain many elements, and your soldiers have adopted the methods of the French, who raped us and left us. How can I be your friend?” This sentence is made more poignant by the story of Khai’s family: Khai’s mother, left a widow in a beriberi epidemic, had approached a local French plantation owner for help saving her children. The Frenchman had aided Khai’s mother, but then “he gave her me as well,” Khai relates. She is angry with her mother for this, saying that she had no principles: “She gave in to him. That’s all. She says she loved him, and she stayed with him until he died. But she was just being a coward.” (Khai tells Lee that her French half is “bad,” saying, “I am Vietnamese first.”) This story also recalls an early scene in the book when Lee and Johnny watch three Vietnamese girls in short skirts and too much lipstick trailing after a group of American servicemen. “Guess what they want,” Johnny tells Lee, the implication being that the girls are either prostitutes or close to it. Johnny, however, is better than Khai’s father, saying, “I don’t want to exploit the war through them.”
The climax of the story comes when Lee and Johnny drive out to a field hospital which is attacked by the Viet Cong shortly after their arrival. Lee is asked to go into a rice paddy shortly after the gunfire has ended to help the wounded and finds Johnny, shot in the abdomen. She bandages him and stays with him for hours, until the helicopters arrive, then is driven back to the base to assist in his surgery. He’s sent back to America to recover, and won’t be coming back to Vietnam. Lee, with still a year left to serve in Vietnam, is left behind, “but the future held hopes of peace and joy. Even in the midst of sadness, she knew that better times would have to come. So many people wanted them.”
I don’t know when I have been more disappointed in a nurse novel. Not that this book is so much worse than the bulk of nurse novels, but I was looking forward to it after reading Ms. Howe’s only other VNRN, West Coast Nurse, which, if not the greatest book ever (I gave it a B+), was brooding and singular and intriguing. Vietnam Nurse, written three years later, is ordinary and even half-hearted, without much to recommend it apart from some nice travel writing. It devotes little time to the politics of the Vietnam War; Lee says displays little interest in learning about it, saying, “What she had read in the papers was so ambiguous and hard to understand that she had given it up as a loss,” in so doing coming across as a bit of a dolt. And it seems to think we readers are dolts as well, merely brushing over what could be interesting themes, like the difficulties inherent in Khai and Lee’s friendship, letting go of someone who has disappeared, and the effects of colonialism and war in modern times. The hints at complexity that Howe drops and then, perhaps thinking that these ideas would be too complex for a lowly nurse novel, lets lie essentially unexamined, make you long for the better book that has been left unwritten. But whatever the reason, if this book gives you something to think about, it won’t be because you got much encouragement from the author.