The Healer's War
by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is the only book by Scarborough I've read, and it seems to be unique in her career. Most of her other solo novels have been described as humorous fantasies, and she also frequently collaborated with Anne McCaffrey. I was only aware of it from the time I originally compiled the Hugo & Nebula awards pages (it won the 1989 Nebula), noting in my Awards Rant that it was the most recent winner that was out of print at that time. I think that was still the case a few years later when I decided I needed to review all the winners, since I had to track down a used paperback to read. Well, The Healer's War is now back in print, which is great because I can give it a strong recommendation. My Goodreads rating is the maximum 5 out of 5 stars.
Portions of the novel are from the author's own experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam, but the fantasy element was added so that her protagonist could view the conflict from a wider perspective. The hospital where Lieutenant Kathleen 'Kitty' McCulley works treats both GI casualites as well as South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. One of those civilians is Xe, an old man brought in by Charlie Heron, a Special Forces officer, who tells Kitty the man is special, a renowned holy man and healer. Some of Xe's power is derived from an amulet he wears around his neck, but there may be more to it, something about him personally. He seems to favor Kitty as someone worthy of wearing the amulet, which frustrates Charlie, since he had been trying to get the old man to explain how his healing power worked.
The fantasy element is so slight it could be removed without altering much of the plot, in fact it is well beyond the halfway point before the full impact of the amulet is revealed. Before that, several things Kitty experiences could be explained away as hallucinations brought on by fatigue and the grueling heat and humidity, as well as once when she is suffering from fever brought on by a foot infection. While she is wearing the amulet she is able to see colored auras emanating from other people, as well as from her own body. Xe's trust in her is borne out later when it appears she can successfully diagnose patients based on their aura, as well as perceive the emotional state of those she encounters. Kitty is very sympathetic of Xe and her other patients, all the while knowing a lot of other Americans are very prejudiced against them. She is heart-broken at the unexpected death of a vivacious young woman, then a few days later her new commanding officer orders all Vietnamese patients be cleared from the ward. She learns of the death of one of them just a day or two after they are transferred to a ill-equipped Vietnamese hospital. She takes it upon herself to try to save a young boy who had lost a leg in an explosion, who had been promised a prosthesis by her former C.O. She persuades a friend who flies med-evac helicopters to take them to a larger hospital. Struck by mortar fire, they crash in the jungle.
I won't recount much more of the plot, at least not specific details, just a few highlights. Kitty and her young patient survive, later encounter a US soldier who is the sole survivor of his regiment, even though they are later separated. The amulet allows Kitty to see the aura of approaching Viet Cong soldiers before she can physically see their bodies or even hear them, so she is able to avoid them. For a while at least. After her experiences in a small village where she heals a girl from a snake bite, as well as others from gunshot and mortar fire wounds, she is captured by a VC commander who sees her as a prize to be presented to the North Vietnamese command. She is eventually 'rescued' by Americans troops, but there is a tense moment where she is suspected of being a VC sympathizer. How else to explain her survival in the jungle alone? The amulet is the likely reason for her stamina and resistance to injury throughout the ordeal, although she keeps that a secret. All of these experiences highlight the horrors of the war, from the outright racism of many Americans towards all 'gooks', even the ARVN allies, to the Viet Cong resistance attempting to rid their country of foreign influence (first the French, then the US), to Vietnamese civilians merely trying to survive the chaos. Our current world situation is not that different. The wars might be in a different part of the world, but our self-centered notions of American superiority and condescending attitude towards foreigners hasn't changed much.
All of the characters are well-drawn and realistic, even the unsympathetic ones, and the descriptions of the Vietnamese countryside and Kitty's grueling ordeal are vivid and moving. Kitty is remarkable. She doesn't make friends easily, makes mistakes but owns up to them, is constantly trying to be a better nurse and a better person, is heroic even when she is skeptical of her own abilities. She feels more sympathy for her Vietnamese patients than she cares for her duties in supporting the war effort. She knows her GI patients are destined for home, while the Vietnamese who survive still have to deal with a devastated country. She knows Vietnam had once been a beautiful country, with simple farmers tending peaceful rice paddies, and she can almost still see a bit of that amidst the gloom of war. Kitty feels adrift when she finally returns to the States, but it's possible she has finally found her calling when she encounters Vietnamese refugees. Both the author and Kitty are from Kansas City and had Army training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Ms. Scarborough is three years older than me, and while the book doesn't specify dates, and I haven't been able to find out details for her Army career, I wonder if we might have been on the base at the same time. I was drafted in 1971, and had basic training and medical training at Ft. Sam, to be either a field medic or orderly, but I will be forever grateful that I was not assigned to Vietnam. If I had, and if she is anything like Kitty, I would have been honored to serve with her. Her other books don't look that appealing to me, but I'm very glad I finally read this one, and I recommend you check it out.
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