Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review - The Healer's War

The Healer's War
by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

1989 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

In the middle of the Vietnam war an army nurse cares for a Vietnamese holy man whose legs were shattered by friendly fire. The holy man gives her an amulet that lets her see people's souls and heal them. When a patient she has come to care for is refused treatment the nurse attempts to transfer the patient to a new hospital but becomes lost in the jungle on the way and is caught in the middle of the war.

The Healer's War is a bold examination of that subject which America has never been able to confront: the Vietnam war. Rather than presenting a war where glory could be won Scarborough strips bare the realities of the war in a way never...

What was that? This was published in 1988 well after confronting the realities of Vietnam entered the public consciousness? Well, never mind then.

This isn't intended to belittle the war experiences of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough which I'm sure shaped this book but so much of the novel's story depends on the "shocking" realities of the Vietnam war that its intended impact has been completely lost. In 1978 it would have been shocking and made an impact. In 1988 the shock has been lost but the subject is still good for a group that wants to pat themselves on the back for "confronting the Vietnam war" (that's not a quote from anyone, just an echo of a popular artistic sentiment). In 2008 it's a well worn road that just isn't that interesting as just about every single war story since the mid-eighties has been filtered through that post-Vietnam sentiment (Pop quiz! What was the most recent generally positive representation of the US military you have seen in film, books, or narrative television?). When Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War it was fresh, by the time The Healer's War the wear was already showing.

One real problem I have with the book is that the point of view character (very likely a stand-in for Scarborough since they have identical backgrounds) is the only moral American character in the book. The others are apathetic at best and the majority are outright evil. Not morally conflicted or hostile; evil. And people in positions of authority are always evil. One literally condemns a child to a lengthy, painful death because he hates all Asians. A US general shows up in the field to directly order the murder of individuals.

And that's the level of character development you can expect in this novel. The Vietnamese (both National and Vietkong) are nearly uniformly presented as the spiritual and moral guideposts while the Americans are corrupt destroyers. Moral complexity has no place in Scarborough's condemnation of the United States.

It made for frustrating reading since the sections that might have been Scarborough's memoirs of working in a hospital in Vietnam are readable. Once she's away from the setting she was familiar with the narrative goes from old war stories to manipulative tripe and doesn't look back. Scarborough writes well but the story she winds up telling and the characters she develops are so weak that it undermines the whole effort.

That's what The Healer's War ammounts to. I didn't care for it because I've been over the same ground dozens of times and Scarborough's immature reactionary story was late to the table in Vietnam examinations when it was published. Twenty years later even that minimal impact is lost. On top of that the weakness of her story telling means that the book cannot overcome the drag of the overdone themes. This one is best left consigned to the past.