The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough fantasy book reviewsThe Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This is another Nebula winner I’ve had on the shelf ever since it was published in 1998, but hadn’t got around to reading. So when I found an audio version on Audible narrated by Robin Miles, one of my favorite female narrators after listening to N.K. Jemisin’s phenomenal The Fifth Season, that was enough to pull it to the top of my TBR list. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is mostly known as a writer of humorous fantasy novels, along with several collaborations with Anne McCaffrey, so it was quite a surprise to discover that she was a combat nurse in Vietnam, and The Healer’s War is a fictional treatment of her experiences there, complete with fantasy elements.

The Healer’s War is the story of Lieutenant Kitty McCulley, an inexperienced young nurse who feels it’s not fair for just young American men to go off to Vietnam and risk their lives, so she signs on for a stint as a combat nurse at China Beach. The first third of the book is about her struggles with the stressful conditions, away from home, fending off constant sexual advances from the soldiers (though not always), and trying to come to terms with the chaos and brutality of war.

Though she is not on the front lines dodging bullets, land mines, Viet Cong soldiers, hostile villagers, and punji-stick traps, she treats the young soldiers that have to deal with these conditions every day, frequently suffering horrendous physical injuries, and just as often psychological trauma like PTSD along with the anger and suspicion that come from distrust of the South Vietnamese and questions as to why the hell they are halfway across the world fighting Communism when their supposed allies don’t seem to want them there.

The Healer’s War pulls no punches when describing the dreadful injuries of war, but what stands out is that Kitty treats Vietnamese civilians as well as US soldiers, and actually forms closer bonds with her Vietnamese patients, who are just caught in the middle. Everyone is a victim, sacrificed for a larger Cold War political chess game between the US and Communist powers like China and the Soviet Union. So whether her patients are American soldiers, South Vietnamese civilians, or even Viet Cong POWs, her mission remains to treat their injuries and bring them comfort. One of her patients is an old man named Xe with a mysterious amulet that he refuses to surrender, even when going into surgery. Despite being a double-amputee, he seems to have a strange power and aura of strength that draws her to him. When the amulet comes into her possession, she discovers she can see and shape the psychic auras of others, which helps her in her treatment of patients.

The first half of The Healer’s War is hardly science-fiction or fantasy at all — it is a memoir of a young nurse treating soldiers in Vietnam, and also about her private relationships with the soldiers, all of whom are desperately horny for the company of an American woman. It’s quite funny how they all try to pick her up, some with crude comments, others with more finesse, but frequently they are married and concealing it. After all, they are far from home and could be killed any day. It’s both flattering and insulting to her how much attention she gets. Eventually she does meet a handsome and fairly charming chopper pilot named Tony, and they are able to share some intimate moments amid the stress and misery.

However, when Kitty is transferred to a new medical facility and assigned a new head doctor, his virulent racism and hatred of all Vietnamese people (because his younger brother was killed in Vietnam) leads to an insurmountable conflict due to her close bonds with her Vietnamese patients. One day he simply orders her to discharge all of them, saying he’d be damned if he devotes a single resource to helping “the enemy.” This includes many of her close friends, and sending these amputees to local Vietnamese clinics amounts to a death sentence. It’s a very emotionally-wrenching situation, very finely described.

The final third of the book is the only part in which the fantasy element becomes prominent, as Kitty is stranded in the forest with a one-legged young Vietnamese boy and a crazed black American soldier who has lost his entire company. As they wander through combat zones, hoping to avoid the Viet Cong and find friendly US forces, Kitty discovers just how much psychological damage the war has inflicted on both herself and her companions, assisted by the aura-sensing power of the amulet. When they are then captured by Viet Cong soldiers, things get very complicated. The resolution is dramatic but morally-ambiguous, as any treatment of the Vietnam War must inevitably be. It did remind me of Vietnam war films like Platoon, Casualties of War, and even Coming Home and Born on the 4th of July at the end.

The Healer’s War is a memorable Vietnam War memoir with a unique female perspective, and though its fantasy elements are not really crucial, they do add to her ability to try to understand and heal the wounds of war. I would recommend it to anyone who wants some perspective of this war, though it is a visceral and gut-wrenching experience and not for the faint of heart.

Published in 1998. Nebula Award winner. Although perhaps best known for her lightly humorous fantasies and collaborations with Anne McCaffrey on the Petaybee series and the Acorna series, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has also writtenHealer’s War, a classic novel of the Vietnam War, enriched with a magical, mystical twist, which won the 1989 Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1988. The Minneapolis Star Tribune called it “a brutal and beautiful book.” Scarborough herself was a nurse in Vietnam during the war, and she draws on her own personal experiences to create the central character, Lieutenant Kitty McCulley. McCulley, a young and inexperienced nurse tossed into a stressful and chaotic situation, is having a difficult time reconciling her duty to help and heal with the indifference and overt racism of some of her colleagues, and with the horrendously damaged soldiers and Vietnamese civilians whom she encounters during her service at the China Beach medical facilities. She is unexpectedly helped by the mysterious and inexplicable properties of an amulet, given to her by one of her patients, an elderly, dying Vietnamese holy man, which allows her to see other people’s “auras” and to understand more about them as a result. This eventually leads to a strange, almost surrealistic journey through the jungle, accompanied by a one-legged boy and a battle-seasoned but crazed soldier, and, by the end of the journey, McCulley has found herself and a way to live and survive through the madness and destruction.