This Sunday, Ken Burns’s 10-episode, 18-hour documentary, “The Vietnam War,” begins. Highly anticipated, it brings back what NPR calls the “Ken Burns All-Stars,” including co-director Lynn Novick, cinematographer Buddy Squires, and narrator Peter Coyote.
I feel compelled to watch, even if it is with a small sense of dread at the idea of spending 10 Sunday nights feeling deeply sad. I know that a large part of the country will be watching, and I want to tune in to the moment’s zeitgeist: it’s going to inform what a lot of people are thinking about on Monday morning when they drive to work, ride the subway, go about their workday.
In any case, with Vietnam coming back onto the national radar on its roughly 50-year anniversary, I wanted to spend a moment here on a book by Lynn Kanter, Her Own Vietnam, which takes as its subject matter the service of Army nurses during that war. More broadly, it also explores the nature of trauma as both personal and cultural, and the way Vietnam has seared and scarred our collective memory.
I had read Her Own Vietnam just over a year ago and enjoyed it very much; I re-read it this past week but was also happy to receive a copy of the Audible edition in exchange for an honest review. I’m a little embarrassed to say I had never listened to an entire audiobook before — maybe I’m just a control freak who likes to go at my own pace, or maybe I’ve been worried that audio books will sound stagey.
Happily, that is not the case with Her Own Vietnam, which got a big score with reader Robin Miles, who’s done the recordings of such works as Hidden Figures, We Need New Names, Thirty Girls, and The Star Side of Bird Hill. Miles’s talent brings the book to life; her voice is warm and she hits moments of humor with perfect pitch and timing. Trust me, this is a voice you want to listen to. Miles moves from one character-voice to another with just enough subtle change to differentiate them, but it never once feels awkward; it’s engaging, and as fun as a radio play. I enjoyed reading Miles’s bio, learning that she is a Yale-educated drama major whose love of voices and storytelling was developed partly from having a Jamaican grandfather who taught English lit and who could recite Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and from growing up in a New Jersey neighborhood full of immigrant accents.
Her Own Vietnam opens with an epigram by Mary “Chris” Banigan, former Captain in the Army Nurse Corps, Vietnam, 1969-71: “I don’t speak about Vietnam, and most people in my world don’t even know I’m a veteran. I prefer it that way.”
Those words could have been written by protagonist Della Brown herself. At the dawn of the Iraq war, which rumbles uneasily beneath the novel at various points, Della receives a letter from her former best friend, Charlene Johnson. The two grew very close during their time as new Army nurses in-country, but the terms of their separation have kept them estranged ever since. Della “missed her with a yearning that had grown fierce and lean from feeding on silence.”
When Della receives the letter (“an honest-to-God letter! She’d thought they were extinct”) it throws her for a loop, bringing back memories she’s struggled to bury. Her constant proximity to loss as a career nurse (especially now as an oncology nurse) is not helping, nor is the fact that her daughter, Abby, has just left home to pursue an acting career in NYC. “Now,” Kanter writes, “Charlene had touched her with this handful of words and Della didn’t know what to feel.”
Urged by her sister’s partner, Anne, to start talking about Vietnam, Della begins to share her memories, some of which are awful, and others less-so. We learn about Della’s friend Charlene in her youth, who joined the Army on a recruiter’s lie that doing so would keep any of her brothers from having to serve, a lie that will later bring her much bitterness. We learn about Mac “No One’s Married in Vietnam” the Pilot, Della’s first love, though she now sees his shortcomings and saw them even then. We learn about just what these young Army nurses were up against, some with relatively little nursing experience (Della starts out with, I believe, six months’) who were thrown into the sometimes-devastating work of field hospital nursing. “The pounding heartbeat of the hospital,” Della recalls: “the whup-whup-whup of a helicopter delivering fresh casualties from the battlefield.”
Della gains toughness as well as nursing prowess. Kanter has done her research, down to the details of nursing: “She rolled elastic stockinettes over the bulky dressings and wrapped them with ace bandages, then hung a six-pound weight from each stump to keep the skin from retracting.” I appreciate Kanter’s mention of service-related accidents, which are easily overlooked or forgotten by the public, but which military families know are not only common but can be devastating: “One of her patients today had been injured when a white phosphorous flare he was carrying went off accidentally.” When Della unwraps his wound, the “willy pete” reacts with the oxygen in the air and begins to smolder inside the man’s leg, but Della, now experienced in these previously unthinkable scenarios, knows to neutralize the reaction with another chemical, as she’s been taught to do.
The soldier’s youth, and the nurses’, is highlighted, particularly through Kanter’s eye; sometimes their youth seems almost absurd (as with Della’s high school boyfriend Ronnie, who gets so excited at the school dance he jizzes in his pants; now for all we know poor Ronnie is somewhere in-country, maybe only miles from Della. If so, one would hope the boy has matured a little, but how much life experience can he possibly have?).
Other times, what these young people are able to do in wartime is shown as a strength–their resilience, how quickly they can learn on their feet. Having written a novel set in Army nuclear reactors, I find that both of these interpretations of youth in wartime –youth as an absurdity, and as a sign of impressive fortitude– ring fairly true. I’ve always marveled at how much the military asks of incredibly young people, and how much of the time they are able to rise to the occasion.
As a character, Della is realistically drawn; she is divorced, a caretaker for her mother; the war turned her vegetarian for life: I believe all of these things. (Even if Della’s own mother doesn’t, asking, What, “did you meet some Army doctor that wouldn’t eat meat?” Della’s, “Yeah, Mom,” response is quite funny, by the way.) Della’s observations feel right for her character, too; I can believe her as a career nurse and war veteran when she thinks, “So much went on beneath the skin…It was a wonder anyone survived into old age.”
Much of the writing is quite beautiful, such as, “Della’s love for her daughter was a wild thing that sometimes bullied them both.” Looking at her own mother, Della thinks, “Age had settled on her face like a veil.”
Charlene, whose eventual reunion with Della drives the novel forward, is a well-crafted character in her own right; at turns funny but also serious, and a bit of a rebel: she’s demoted for making a wisecrack in front of a General. Robin Miles is the perfect reader for Charlene’s voice; she reads these lines in a warm, dropped half-register and just the hint of a Georgia accent.
Certainly, the novel raises heavy questions about war, memory, gender expectations, women’s role and rights (Della notes that, doing some research in the ’80s to try and figure out why she has felt so unsettled after the war, she feels further alienated because “not a single study on Vietnam vets [with PTSD] included women.”) She also shares a pointed observation on the way the Army nurses were viewed by many soldiers: “A decent woman wouldn’t be here, they seemed to believe, so any woman in-country was here for the taking.”
The novel will certainly make good reading–and/or listening–alongside Ken Burns’s new series. While I’m sure the thorough and professional Burns will mention the nurses who served, as he will draw rightful attention to the Vietnamese who suffered a terrible toll in the war, he has only so much time. I am grateful for the time and space Lynn Kanter gives Della, Charlene, and all the other women–nurses who served, or who were touched by the reverberations of war and violence–in Her Own Vietnam.
Kanter, Lynn. Her Own Vietnam. Shade Mountain Press, 2014.
You can purchase the audio edition here.
About the author: Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam, The Mayor of Heaven and On Lill Street. Her short stories and essays have been published in a number of journals and anthologies. She works as a freelance writer for national social justice organizations. She writes a literary blog, Start with a Story.
This sounds like a very compelling read. The stories of the real-life Vietnam-era nurses who inspired the novel are quite impressive in their own right and deserve more attention.