I read a lot of historical fiction. I read a lot of historical fiction that takes place during war times. I have not, however, read many books that take place during the Vietnam War. Perhaps authors are hesitant to set their books in such a controversial war; or perhaps, as Americans, we have not talked about the Vietnam War enough, so it’s not at the top of mind when we talk about historical fiction. Perhaps this is just a lack in my own reading and I need to look outside my usual WWII fiction. I did that with Kristin Hannah’s latest book, The Women.

In 1965, when Frankie’s brother shipped out to serve in Vietnam, he was considered a hero in her family. Frankie’s family has a long line of men who have served their country, and it is held in high honor when the younger generation enlists. It turns out that a woman signing up to join the Army Nurse Corp during the Vietnam War was not going to receive the same accolades. But Frankie, wanting to do the right thing and serve her country, does just that.

Leaving her idyllic life, Frankie finds herself in the middle of a war zone. Atrocities she could never have imagined are a daily occurrence, and fear is her daily companion, but she has a job to do. No matter how horrifying the destruction and the condition of her patients, she is dedicated to service. My own words cannot express the horrors detailed in this book. I won’t even try.  Kristin Hannah addresses the war with unflinching detail. 

Frankie started her service way out of her depth. She soon discovered that her nursing training had not prepared her for the type of nursing and the hard decisions she would have to make in a war. Through sheer grit and determination not to fail, Frankie became a sought-after nurse for her competence and compassion. After serving multiple deployments, Frankie was finally sent home, only to find a different battle raging. 

I’m sure we have all heard the stories about how Vietnam vets were treated when they arrived back home, many of them with permanent physical issues and most with emotional and psychological trauma. They arrived home to derision and protests in the streets. Many vets were unable to cope with life after what they saw in the war and attempted suicide, turned to drugs or alcohol, or just buried their feelings hoping to resemble a person who wasn’t traumatized. Years later, the men who served in the war were still suffering from their experiences. 

And we all know how the women were treated, right? …Or maybe we don’t, because as Frankie found out upon her return, the prevailing wisdom was that “there were no women in Vietnam.” Despite seeing some of the worst of war and being in constant fear for her life, she was told her experience wasn’t real. Frankie’s parents never told friends and family that she was at war because it was not proper behavior for a woman. They were also unwilling to discuss her experiences with her and expected her to step right back into her role as the privileged, sheltered daughter. Her experience in the community was no better. Friends refused to speak of her service or just didn’t believe her. Her experience returning home, while not as violent as her experience in Vietnam, was a whole new trauma. 

The Women, while focused on the experience of women in the Vietnam War, reflects how women have bravely stepped into harm’s way but have been dismissed by history. It’s also a book about friendship forged through the most difficult of experiences and the courage to fight for yourself. 

I have loved all the books I’ve read by Kristin Hannah. She manages to put the reader in the setting, experiencing the emotions of the characters. You will want to cry with Frankie, you’ll be scared with Frankie, and you will want to fight for Frankie. 

If you enjoyed The Women, you may also like: 

Flying Angels by Danielle Steel

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Sarah Johnson is a collection librarian at Mid-Columbia Libraries. She reads more than 120 books a year. In her free time, she teaches fitness classes, gardens, and brews kombucha.