Ha! I bet none of you would’ve predicted that I would be reading a book about Vietnam – including myself. But this out-of-print YA historical novel turned out to be a hidden gem and well-worth tracking down.
Lieutenant Rebecca Phillips’ life as a nurse in Vietnam is unimaginable. Not only has she treated hundreds of dying men, but she has watched her only two friends die, endured the battlefront firsthand while MIA, and struggled with her own gunshot wound and other injuries. While Rebecca’s mostly able to ignore the 24/7 physical pain, it’s the emotional scars that don’t seem to heal. In the hospital, where her skill and exactness as a nurse are sorely needed and free time is almost non-existent, it’s easy to bottle those wounds. Life also happens to be brutally simple and mindless when you’re popping pills and staying highly caffeinated as you auto-pilot from body to body, task to task for up to 20 hours at a time. However, the emergency room isn’t devoid of hope, either. Rebecca still has her letters from Michael Jennings, the at times grouchy, cocky grunt whose squad she met while lost in the Vietnamese jungle. But when Michael is admitted to the hospital seriously injured and her year of in-country service is up, Rebecca’s practically forced to leave, and home isn’t a place she can hide from her guilt-ridden, damaged soul much longer.
That The Road Home was so well-written and gripping exceeded my expectations. Reading about war through the perspective of a nurse rather than a soldier was very refreshing, but just as horrific and painful. There are no words for having to experience so much suffering that you can no longer look at a soldier as a human being. There are no words for killing another and witnessing your friends endure the toughest of hardships. Rebecca’s felt so much that she’s numb, and it’s so hard to be party to her self-destruction. Though I’m in no position to understand, I still found myself telling her to speak, tell, let someone – anyone – know her true feelings. It was almost frustrating at times. But inches from rock bottom, when Rebecca decides to take a one-person road trip across the country and she learns that going through hell and back wasn’t without some consolation- she has beyond redeemed herself. And that conclusion? So rewarding, rewarding, rewarding for the reader. I felt the watery-eye kind of happiness.
I also loved Ellen Emerson White’s writing style: so effortlessly smart and fluid. This is so simple, but I liked how she interspersed letters with at times line-by-line thoughts and commentary from the character reading the letter. I particularly liked how smoothly Rebecca’s words and thoughts ran together – what she was saying and what she was actually feeling in the same moment was so important to the story. Also, White’s characters are pure gold. From the mains – Rebecca, Michael, Major Doyle – to the sides – Snoopy, Finnegan, and Rebecca’s parents – all are fully-fleshed out people with real strengths, weaknesses, and personality quirks. I will definitely be reading any of the other Rebecca books I can manage to get my hands on.