As I started to write this review, I realized that I had a lot more to say about the Vietnam War and presentations of that conflict than I did about this novel itself. At one point, I had an entire essay composed in my head about Full Metal Jacket vs. Platoon, The Deer Hunter vs. Apocalypse Now, and all-of-the-above vs. Forrest Gump. Then I realized that said essay had almost nothing to do with The Healer’s War. In the end, I think this nicely illustrates my general feelings about the novel: I wanted to like it due to it’s challenging subject matter, but I think the final presentation failed on several fronts: the fantasy aspects are unnecessary and uncomfortable and the final product is far duller than a novel on Vietnam by an actual female veteran has any right to be.
The novel focuses on an Army nurse in Vietnam named Kitty McCulley. During the first half, we follow Kitty around her ward, where she sees the horrible injuries suffered by American troops and Vietnamese civilians and encounters the poverty of the latter and the casual racism and sexism of the former. Scarborough was an Army nurse, and this section is close to memoir. However, Scarborough introduces a fantasy element. One of Kitty’s patients is a Vietnamese village elder with a mystical healing amulet, which falls into Kitty’s hands. With it, she can see people’s auras and focus her healing energies to help (very slightly) the sick and injured. In the second half of the novel, through a series of events that I won’t spoil, Kitty journeys through the Vietnamese countryside with a berserk American soldier and a one-legged Vietnamese boy.
There are interesting observations here, especially in the first half based closely on Scarborough’s own experiences. The attitudes of the various officers, doctors, enlisted men and patients were illuminating, and, I assume, based to a large extent on reality. The fantasy element clashes though. Scarborough seems to have realized this, as she writes a five page afterward called “Why I Don’t Tell It Like It Is, Exactly.” I think the lady doth protest too much. She admits that the amulet was an invention to allow Kitty to move into areas of the country that she herself could not have gone. I’m all for the idea of illuminating historical or contemporary issues with sf metaphors, but I’m much less interested in inventing fantasy elements to fix plotholes. This very simple role for the amulet really cripples the book – it doesn’t have any thematic resonance, nor does it tell us more about the characters or world. It simply pops up occasionally to help Kitty survive in a few situations. As a result, The Healer’s War works neither as a memoir nor as a fantasy – it’s a few intriguing reminiscences buried in a bad Vietnam adventure story.
I think I learned more about the Vietnam War and an author’s experiences therein from The Forever War…a novel with no ostensible connection to the historical war itself.