Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Healer's War by Elizabeth Scarborough

The Healer's War was the last book in the first theme for my in-person SF/F book club (reading the same books as my online version, but a couple of months ahead.) We wrapped up Post-War Science Fiction (and Fantasy) with the only book written by a woman, and were supposed to discuss it last night. Of course, the scheduling demons intervened, and four people cancelled out separately because things came up at the last minute, so it was just my husband and I at the pub talking about it. Which was okay, but I hope the start of the next theme next month shows a bit of a renaissance, because I've been very much enjoying this project, and lord, do I ever need things going on that I enjoy.

Still, we spent most of our beer-drinking time talking about the book, so I'll count it as a win. And one thing that kept coming up for both my husband and I was that this really wasn't a fantasy. Yes, there's an amulet in the book with a few magic powers, but it's in some ways such a minor part of a straight-forward Vietnam novel. The most magical power it seems to have (other than, you know, healing) is as a plot pass to get a white woman in among the Vietnamese people and then the Viet Cong without long-term injury.

The main character is, as Elizabeth Scarborough also was, a combat nurse in Vietnam. Kitty starts out being as insulated from the war as you can be when you have to hide under your bed several times a week during mortar fire - working at a hospital that mostly takes care of injured GIs, but also a few Vietnamese patients.

This part of the book lingers in great detail on her days, in ways that are really very compelling - and unfortunately, tend to mean that when the rushed epilogue happens, it's even more obvious that we're not going to spend time exploring this, not because she can't write those type of scenes, but because she's chosen not to. Maybe the publisher forced her to put the epilogue in, I don't know. But we linger here and we rush there, and a lot of that rushing is through landmined territory that maybe we should pick through and try to understand.

Back to the plot! When a new doctor starts who despises the Vietnamese patients, Kitty decides to try to take one young boy to another hospital in a larger city, run by her former charge nurse. She's toting a magic amulet that she doesn't really understand yet, although she's learning it lets her see auras. (And it will help her heal people, yes.) But the helicopter she is in gets shots down, and she and Ahn are lost in the jungle, where they encounter a fairly deranged American GI, a Vietnamese village that will come to trust her after she kills a giant snake, then heals some of the victims, then captured by the Viet Cong, forced to witness atrocities, found by Americans, forced to almost be subject to atrocities by the Americans, and finally go home to where no one understands what she's been through.

Those aspects that seem closest to Scarborough's own experiences are by far the strongest, and there's a lot there, and she's obviously trying very hard not to pick a "side" in the war. But as I mentioned, it speeds up in an annoying way that shuts her readers out of her main character's difficulties in post-Vietnam America, when it feels like there's so much to explore!

And yeah, not really a fantasy novel. But still worth reading, and sparked some good conversation in comparison to our other books. This was the only one of this set of books I hadn't previously read, so I was always taking a leap of faith on this one, and it certainly gave rise to interesting conversation.


  1. Is it more magical realism, if it's not exactly fantasy?

    Relatedly: I have an anti-magical realism bias that I should probably challenge at some point. Can you recommend one or two good ones?

    1. It really isn't! It's a very straightforward fiction book, with one fantasy element.

      For magical realism - Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the classic, of course, but I can't say I love his books. I did really like Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits. I would also classify Ali Shaw's Girl with the Glass Feet as magical realism.

      Bill and I had a discussion last night as to whether or not Timothy Findley's Headhunter might qualify, and agreed that it might. I sort of feel like Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water might qualify as well, and it's fabulous.