Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s 1988 The Healer’s War is a stand-alone military fantasy novel.
Following an error of judgment that leaves a girl dead, military nurse Lt. Kitty McCulley is transferred to orthotics. Serving as she does in Vietnam during wartime1, she is too valuable to send home.
Her hospital work is distressing. She tries to distract herself with ill-conceived, ill-fated love affairs in her off-duty hours, but this doesn’t help. If anything, her hobbies exacerbate her stress; there are disturbing revelations re one beau’s willful omissions.
In course of her duties, she convinces Vietnamese holy man Cao Van Xe to surrender his jewelry before Xe is wheeled into surgery. He entrusts his most precious possession, an amulet, to Kitty. Unbeknownst to Kitty, the holy man has powers beyond American ken. Thanks to her possession of the amulet, now so does Kitty. She can heal with a touch.
What would be in almost any other novel a boon is an unwanted complication for Kitty. The amulet does not come with an instruction book. The sudden appearance of auras around other people alarms Kitty. Could some terrible malady be causing hallucinations?
And then a new, major stressor: a new boss, Major Krupman. As far as the racist Major is concerned, the hospital’s resources are for Americans only. Therefore, all of the Vietnamese patients will be discharged, to survive or not as fate decrees. All Kitty can do is try to deliver one patient, an amputee boy named Ahn, to what she hopes will be safety.
The helicopter transferring Kitty and Ahn is shot down. The nurse and boy are lost, far from any American base. Kitty will now get a very detailed look at the conflict, as experienced by the villagers living in a war zone. Her powers may make her useful enough to be spared. Alternatively, a woman who heals with a touch might be worth killing simply to keep her from complicating an already fraught situation.
It’s probably best not to calculate the odds that medical staff will complete a full career without an error that kills someone. That said, Kitty’s fatal error occurs fairly early in her career. Her romantic mishaps and other incidents suggest that her lapse in judgment might be part of a general pattern. That said, while ultimately Kitty succeeds in few of her goals, one should not judge her too harshly. Circumstances are very much against her and her choices are mainly between undesirable alternatives. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call this a horror novel.
It would have been great had the only significant African American character in the book not been a PTSD-crazed American soldier encountered in the jungle, a supposed ally ultimately as dangerous to Kitty as the Viet Cong.
I haven’t read all that many of Scarborough’s books (and she has written many). Most of those I have read were her collaborations with Anne McCaffrey. Assuming the collaborations are a representative sample, The Healer’s War is highly atypical for Scarborough. I note that it is also her only Nebula winner. The novel reads almost as though she set out to write a Lucius Shepard novel2. Her afterword suggests this is simply another case of parallel development; the actual sources of inspiration are the author’s own experiences.
Scarborough was an Army RN for half a decade; she spent one year of her career in Vietnam during the conflict. This novel is full of graphic descriptions of injuries and illnesses; as she states in her afterword, these descriptions are drawn from real life. The wider context is also grim. She does not paint an attractive picture of any faction in the war, save perhaps for the unarmed civilians who are being brutalized and murdered by both sides. Adding magic does not make the situation any happier.
Best to open this book expecting terrible events and a bleak conclusion. It’s a well-written, effective look at a terrible war. I think it merited its Nebula Award.
1: Well, police action time.
2: This comment may be less than helpful if you’ve not read Shepard before, although long-time readers of the site should recognize the name from Green Eyes and any number of Dozois’ The Year’s Best Fiction volumes; Shepard’s bleak, death-obsessed prose appealed to Dozois. I may sometime swing back and review Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter or his Life During Wartime.