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The Women: A Novel
by Kristin Hannah

Published: 2024-02-06T00:0
Hardcover : 480 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 6 members
From the celebrated author of The Nightingale and The Four Winds comes The Women?at once an intimate portrait of coming of age in a dangerous time and an epic tale of a nation divided.

Women can be heroes. When twenty-year-old nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath hears these ...

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Introduction

From the celebrated author of The Nightingale and The Four Winds comes The Women?at once an intimate portrait of coming of age in a dangerous time and an epic tale of a nation divided.

Women can be heroes. When twenty-year-old nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath hears these words, it is a revelation. Raised in the sun-drenched, idyllic world of Southern California and sheltered by her conservative parents, she has always prided herself on doing the right thing. But in 1965, the world is changing, and she suddenly dares to imagine a different future for herself. When her brother ships out to serve in Vietnam, she joins the Army Nurse Corps and follows his path.

As green and inexperienced as the men sent to Vietnam to fight, Frankie is over-whelmed by the chaos and destruction of war. Each day is a gamble of life and death, hope and betrayal; friendships run deep and can be shattered in an instant. In war, she meets?and becomes one of?the lucky, the brave, the broken, and the lost.

But war is just the beginning for Frankie and her veteran friends. The real battle lies in coming home to a changed and divided America, to angry protesters, and to a country that wants to forget Vietnam.

The Women is the story of one woman gone to war, but it shines a light on all women who put themselves in harm’s way and whose sacrifice and commitment to their country has too often been forgotten. A novel about deep friendships and bold patriotism, The Women is a richly drawn story with a memorable heroine whose idealism and courage under fire will come to define an era.

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Excerpt

One


CORONADO ISLAND, CALIFORNIA

MAY 1966

The walled and gated McGrath estate was a world unto itself, protected and private. On this twilit evening, the Tudor-style home’s mullioned windows glowed jewel-like amid the lush, landscaped grounds. Palm fronds swayed overhead; candles floated on the surface of the pool and golden lanterns hung from the branches of a large California live oak. Black-clad servers moved among the well-dressed crowd, carrying silver trays full of champagne, while a jazz trio played softly in the corner. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher--added by Pauline:

1. “Women can be heroes.” Frankie believes her future as a wife and mother is set in stone until Rye says this. It is a small comment that tears a big hole in Frankie’s perception of the world. These words, and her brother’s enlistment, inspire Frankie to join the Army Nurse Corps.  It is a decision founded on the patriotism of the post–World War II era and her family’s proud history of service.  Why do you think Frankie’s parents were so appalled by her enlistment in the Army?  Was it simply her sex?  Or was there more to it?  Discuss how the “conformity” of the 1950s caged women and the “freedom” of the 1960s changed the perception of where women “belong.”  How do you think Bette and Connor’s own family history of service impacted their opinion of her choice?

2. Frankie arrives in Vietnam filled with idealism and hope. She wants to “make a difference.” But almost instantly, she is thrust into the truth of war: the trauma, the heartbreak, the fear.  She thinks that she is too inexperienced and that she has made a mistake.  It is Ethel who talks her through this and gives her comfort.  How does this friendship change and grow over time? How do Ethel and Barb change Frankie’s view of the world?

3. Throughout the novel, characters listen to the pop music of the 1960s by such bands as The Beatles, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Cream. Classic Rock is now more than fifty years old, and artists from that era continue to tour and sell out arenas. Why do you think the 1960s music that reflected the counterculture and changing mores continues to appeal to so many generations of fans? Are the lyrics of these songs and the stories they tell still relevant in the twenty-first century? Are you a fan of Classic Rock? Which songs? Which artists? What do they mean to you and why?

4. During her Tour of Duty, Frankie evolves from sheltered young woman into hardened combat nurse. As wounded flood into the hospital, she begins to question the American government’s involvement in the war. She sees the truth behind the lies that are being told in the media and at home.  The Vietnam generation was fueled by dreams and  lost on the battlefield.  Discuss how the political climate changed the war and how disillusionment with the government changed Americans’ minds.

5. In Vietnam, Frankie saves lives. During her service, she is aware of the protests going on “back in the world”: the flag burnings and the sit ins and the marches. She wonders why people can’t oppose the war but support the soldiers.  Even so, when she returns home after two tours in Vietnam, she is stunned by the lack of welcome she receives.  She is spit on at the airport and has trouble finding a cab to take her home.  Once there, she learns that her parents are so ashamed of her service that they lied to their country club friends about it.  She realizes quickly that Vietnam veterans are not respected; there is no thank-you for their service.  The only way to survive is to “disappear” into the landscape and not talk about the war.  How did this impact a generation of Americans?  What would it feel like to have served your country in wartime only to be spit upon when you came home?  How did this treatment affect the veterans in both the long and short term?  How did it affect Frankie?  Can you understand her trauma?

6. Explore and discuss the theme of honor in the novel as it relates to Frankie’s decisions about the war, about her life after the war, and about Jamie and Rye. What is her moral code? Other nurses tell Frankie that in Vietnam, “men lie and they die.” How does this statement reflect the events of the novel?

7. “There were no women in Vietnam.” When Frankie returns stateside, she encounters people who refuse to take her service and her experiences seriously and ignore her requests for help. Today, women continue to fight for their health rights against a medical system that fails to actively listen and address women’s health concerns. Have you ever felt dismissed by a doctor or a hospital when discussing your health? Do you think gender plays a role in how doctors treat their patients?

8. Clearly, Frankie suffers from PTSD after the war. At that time, there was very little understanding of the effects of PTSD, and both the military and the medical community dismissed the notion that a woman could suffer from the effects of war. Frankie herself believes that she “wasn’t in combat.”  Was she?  How do you define being in combat?

9. Over the years, Frankie is more and more affected by her PTSD, although she has no way to understand it and no one to help her deal with it. Her symptoms make her feel more alone, more of a failure.  But she tries valiantly to “soldier on.”  It isn’t until her miscarriage and Rye’s return from the Hanoi Hilton that she really begins to spiral out of control.  This is when her mother gives her drugs to “take the edge off.”  These highly addictive drugs were advertised and prescribed to women as “Mother’s Little Helpers.”  Why do you think such ads existed?  What purpose did they serve?  How did you feel about Frankie’s coping behavior? Was there ever a time in your life when you felt so alone and helpless that you didn’t know what to do? How did Frankie’s mental and emotional health journey make you feel?

10. The stigma of mental illness remains prevalent today, and many people would rather suffer in silence than seek help. What do you do to maintain your mental and emotional health? Do you have a supportive group of family and friends to turn to in times of crisis?

11. About her time at war and her understanding of it, Frankie writes: “It’s hard to see clearly when the world is angry and divided and you’re being lied to.” This sentiment applies to many eras throughout human history, including our own. What lessons can we learn from the Vietnam era? Why do you think the world is so polarized now?  How much difference does truth make, and consensus, and community?  The end of the war was the beginning of healing for America in the time of the novel.  What would begin to heal America today?  How can individuals make a difference?

12. What do you think was Frankie’s darkest moment in the book? What do you think “broke” Frankie?  Was it her service and the horrors she witnessed?  Was it PTSD?  The miscarriage?  Or was it breaking her own moral code—having an affair with a married man?  What should Frankie have done when she learned that Rye was alive?  Did you see his betrayal coming?  Should Frankie have seen it?  What were the clues she missed?  Do you believe Rye loved her?

13. In the novel, Frankie goes from sheltered California girl to hardened combat veteran to woman at peace with herself and the world. Her peace is hard-won and continually fought for.  In the end, what was it that healed her?  Was it friendship?  The creation of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial to honor Vietnam veterans?  Therapy?  Sobriety?  How did you feel about Frankie at the end of the novel?  Where do you think she goes after the end of the novel?  What does the rest of her life look like?

14. At the end of the book, Frankie realizes that “remembrance mattered.” What does she mean by this?  Discuss the history of Vietnam-era veterans—their service and their treatment upon coming home—and ask yourself what you have learned from this story.  What do we owe to our veterans and their families? How can we truly thank them for their service and their sacrifice?

Suggested by Members

Do you think veteran resilience was represented well? why/why not?
by [email protected] (see profile) 03/11/24

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Author Q & A:

Q. What inspired you to write a novel set during the turbulent era of the Vietnam War?

A. The Vietnam War cast a big shadow over my childhood. I remember the turbulence of the era, the unrest. When I was in elementary school, my best friend’s father was MIA; he’d been shot down in 1967. I remember wearing his POW bracelet for decades. As a result, his name was burned into my memory. Because of him, I remember vividly the sense of waiting for the warriors to come home, and I remember how they were treated upon return. Even as a young girl, I knew how wrong it was. These feelings have stayed with me for years, and I have wanted to write about this pivotal moment in American history. I am so grateful to be able to shine a light on the veterans who were forgotten for too long.

Q. The country is currently polarized politically and socially with an intensity not seen or felt since the 1960s. Did today’s extreme divisions between people influence your novel?

A. Absolutely. I first pitched this novel in the late 1990s and ended up deciding that I wasn’t ready to dig into this era. I think I needed to be older, hopefully wiser, and absolutely certain of what I had to say. And then came the pandemic. In the midst of the lockdown, with all of the attendant fear and division in America and abroad, I realized that it was the perfect moment to delve into another terrible, politically divided time in our country. One of the things I love about historical fiction is its ability to illuminate the modern world. Now, more than ever, we need to find a way to come together and have civil, informed conversations.

Q. Did your research for this novel include reading any memoirs or histories about the nurses who served in Vietnam? What about in-person interviews or conversations?

A. Obviously, the research for this novel was extensive and, honestly, a little daunting. In choosing to write about one nurse’s experiences, I was able to pare down the enormity of the subject as well as make it deeply personal. Yes, I was lucky to talk to many Vietnam-era veterans of the war—nurses, Red Cross workers, and even a decorated helicopter pilot. All of them helped me to create and maintain a truthful, accurate feel for my fictional story. But more than that, these veterans inspired me. I learned about their wartime experiences and their troubles coming home, about how it felt to be a veteran of this unpopular war. I was recently able to attend the Veteran’s Day commemoration in Washington, D.C., and it was an awe-inspiring, heart-expanding, heartbreaking experience. I stood at the Women’s Vietnam Memorial with Diane Carlson Evans and heard her speak of the ten-year struggle she waged to get the Memorial built and placed near The Wall (The Vietnam Veterans Memorial). I watched as dozens of these nurses– gathered at their own memorial– hugged each other and laughed and cried together.

Q. Frankie experiences loss, heartbreak, combat, trauma, and addiction in her personal journey. Over the course of her story, what were the most difficult moments and emotions to depict?

A. You’ll probably be surprised to hear that the most difficult aspects of this story for me, as the writer, centered on the love story. At her core, Frankie was a patriot and an idealist. I always knew that. And I loved that about her. So, when she broke her own moral code for love, I had a lot of trouble following that path, making her walk it. I think, in the end, it really made her fallible and human and revealed the depth of her pain, but readers may feel differently about her choice and why she made it.

Q. Frankie’s friendship with Barb and Ethel was a profound source of strength and courage. Comment about the ways in which women’s friendship plays a role in this novel and in your own life.

A. I think female friendship is one of the most powerful forces on earth. When we women come together in love and friendship, we are unbreakable. That was the silver lining of Frankie’s wartime experience: she met the best friends of her life, women that would be at her side come hell or high water. I am fortunate to have a group of girlfriends that keep me steady and upright. We laugh, we cry, we rail, we argue, but mostly, we share our lives. I can’t imagine my life without them.

Q. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses were on the frontlines facing life and death. They have been called heroes, and yet their physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion under the circumstances has not been thoroughly explored in popular culture. Are the parallels we can find in The Women between these nurses and the nurses who served in Vietnam deliberate?

A. Absolutely. You can see that I mention medical workers in my dedication for The Women. I researched and wrote this novel during the pandemic, and every day on the news I was seeing the price our medical professionals were paying. They were exhausted and overworked and underappreciated. This novel gave me a chance to say thank you to them for their service, too.

Q. What themes, elements, relationships, settings, or time periods are piquing your interest for your next novel?

A. Ha! I wish I knew. The Women was such a labor of absolute love. I adored writing about these amazing, resilient women—military and civilian—and illuminating both their service in Vietnam and the struggle they faced upon coming home. It will be a tall order to find another story with a similar amount of power and importance, but I’m looking!

Book Club Recommendations

Authentic picture of the Vietnam War era
by thewanderingjew (see profile) 05/08/24
Women, Kristen Hannah, author; Julia Whelan, narrator This book does one thing very well. Using the women who served their nation as nurses during the Vietnam War, and also including the soldiers who served with valor and great courage, Kristin Hannah has exposed the trials and tribulations of all wars. Everyone suffers from the consequences of war, though to different degrees. It is the combat soldier, however, that I believe, suffered the most, often resulting in their own unfortunate behavior for which some were held accountable, rightfully or not, like the soldiers at My Lai and those who were not accountable, like those who took advantage of the women they believed were weaker and indispensable, leaving them at the altar, so to speak. Focusing on three nurses from different backgrounds, Frankie, Barb and Ethel who volunteered for service, and describing their interaction with the men, explaining their motives for the way they all conducted themselves in combat and socially, the book illustrates their bravery, their sacrifice, and sometimes their shameful unethical behavior. It also exposes the shameful, unethical and dishonest behavior of our government that, with their lies, betrayed the men and women who fought this useless and unwinnable war. Their courage went unrecognized for a long time; the brave nurses, because they did not carry a weapon, were ignored and rarely honored. There were far fewer nurses than soldiers and because only one nurse actually died in combat, with a total of eight fatalities, some from illness or accidents, they were not considered heroines, nor were most of the men considered heroes, because we lost the war; the men were still heroes, because they fought and honored the country. The men and women, however, came home from Vietnam in the shadow of a shameful failure. I found the character of Frankie a bit too naïve, especially since she so easily or quickly seemed to morph into the drug addicted, promiscuous characterization of the veteran, male or female. Still, the nurses, regardless of their number, suffered through the brutal enemy attacks on their medical facilities, witnessed the most gruesome injuries, and had to assist in medical procedures and surgeries far beyond the normal duties of a nurse stateside where they were simply expected to do clerical work, carry bedpans and clean up after others. In Nam, they saved many lives and comforted those soldiers they could not save. They forged friendships and bonds that were not easily broken. Because of the fragile situation, in which someone was here today and gone tomorrow, and death and catastrophic injuries were part of every day, often morality went out the window and self-preservation and immediate gratification became their primary goal. Frankie often found herself and her service dismissed by her family, or she felt betrayed in romantic situations, or unappreciated at a stateside hospital, which was the opposite of her experience during the war. In order to insert the pertinent facts, to put the story into an authentic environment, the author includes themes like the lack of respect for women, the lack of opportunity for success, the napalm, the protest marches, the camaraderie that crossed color lines even when the very shameful racism that existed at the same time reared its head, the promiscuity and the drugs and alcohol, and every other line that existed; some scenes seemed contrived. When the war ended and Frankie’s reality was supposed to return to normal, it did not. Her family did not think she was a hero, they had lied about her service, never telling anyone she is in Vietnam. Only her brother could be a hero there. Her own family life and her own personality flaws caused most of her trauma and inability to adjust when she returned. To help her sleep without nightmares, her mom gave her the pills that caused her initial drug addiction, but the need for alcohol was introduced to her in country while she served and it continued afterwards to calm her nerves. The VA hospital ignored her need for help. The system failed many then. Sadly, still today, not all, but some of the VA hospitals still fail the men and women who serve our country. So does our government, and often, our own American citizens abandon them and show them little respect even though their own lives would be quite different, absent the men and women who preserve our freedoms. Moving on, when Frankie came home, her experiences mirrored those of the men who came home, but in reality, I am not sure her reactions or her treatment were as extreme as described in our real world during or post-Vietnam. Still, the description served to show, overall, how the Vietnam Vets were received, even if it was exaggerated a bit. It did happen the way the author depicted it. I knew of people who left the country to go to Canada to avoid service and until amnesty, could not return home. I knew of couples who married quickly and then had children immediately to avoid service. They took jobs that exempted them. No one wanted to go, and those who did go were not wanted when they came home. It was a sad time in our history and it was self-inflicted by our government and by the American citizens who did not appreciate their sacrifices. It was President Johnson who entered that war, and President Nixon exited it. There was no welcome home for the men and women, no parade, and few joyous families proud of those who served. There was just shame, because they had failed to win. They had come home broken. They were ignored and there was very little concern for their adjustment or mental health, or for their futures, if truth be told. The streets filled with the homeless vets and their suicide rate rose. Using the real veteran Ron Kovic, as a character in the novel, lent authenticity to the various themes presented. PTSD was not the focus of medicine then. Unemployment, alcoholism, depression, nightmares and the inability to return to normal life were largely played down or ignored. I don’t remember the nurses being spat upon or ridiculed, but I know that the soldiers were. So, while I think it is true that the author has exaggerated some, she has painted a largely accurate picture of what went on during the years of the Vietnam War, a time of protest, unrest, perhaps unpatriotic behavior, as well. Men left America to avoid service, but I am not sure anyone has the right to blame them, in hindsight. The Vietnam War went on too long and was unsuccessful. Perhaps America had no business being in that war at all. What business was it of ours? The protests and marches were disruptive, but they illustrated the mood of the country. The men did not want to die for a cause that had nothing to do with them. Those that joined up did so because they loved their country and believed their leaders. They were led down the garden path by those who knew they were lying to them. They were fed drugs so they could control their fear and their exhaustion. Today, we know that there is a reason that soldiers are 18 when they can enlist or are drafted. It is because the frontal lobe of the brain is not developed yet, and the ability to make sound judgments is impaired. They follow orders, largely respecting their commanding officers and their purpose. They don’t think too much about anything but their country. The leaders of the country lied to them about what was happening on the ground in Vietnam, simply enlarging the killing field and not the democracy. Perhaps the Pro-Palestinian demonstrators today, supporting terrorists, are the same target audience. The protesters of the Vietnam era did not see Communism as an existential threat, and perhaps, the results over time have proven that they were wrong in part, because those threats morph but still exist today/ Perhaps it is because of our weakness and lack of resolve to do what was necessary to win and to shut down our enemies. The tools of war are horrific, though, and in retrospect, we now know that our war efforts even caused grave illnesses to our own soldiers and their families. Agent Orange had lasting effects eventually causing many kinds of cancer. The drugs freely distributed created addicts. The emotional problems the soldiers had to deal with were often insurmountable. In every confrontation, when lives are in danger and there is a war, there are unintended consequences. Are the people who conduct the war at fault? After all, they are charged with winning the war. Is that there first responsibility? Does the mental and physical health of the people in the trenches really effect judgment about policy? I doubt it, because the overall effort is to win at any price, I think. It is evident today in America’s interference in the war between Ukraine and Russia, between Hamas and Israel. Often, we are on the wrong side of history. We have allowed hate to fester unconditionally by trying to make everything equitable when that is an impossibility. There is only equal opportunity, but we are not all equal. Some are taller, fatter, smarter, braver, etc. Those distinctions affect our success or failure. I think if we do not come around to understanding that fact, we will continue to fail in our efforts to create a peaceful, united country and world.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by Grace P. (see profile) 05/21/24

 
by Rebecca S. (see profile) 05/18/24

 
  "WIMP couldn't do it "by Liz B. (see profile) 05/16/24

could not finish it. I am a Nurse and the women in this booked bugged me to no end

 
by Jen M. (see profile) 05/15/24

Amazing!

 
by Margaret R. (see profile) 05/12/24

 
by Pat G. (see profile) 05/10/24

 
by Cindy M. (see profile) 05/08/24

 
by Gail R. (see profile) 05/08/24

 
by Linda M. (see profile) 05/08/24


 
by Jane D. (see profile) 05/07/24

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