book review, commercial fiction, earnestness, European theater, feminism, historical fiction, nurses, Pacific theater, poor characterization, sexism, Teresa Messineo, twentieth century, women, World War II
Review: The Fire by Night, by Teresa Messineo
Morrow, 2017. 306 pp. $27
If you read this book, you’ll be getting history you probably haven’t heard, about American Army nurses during World War II. You’ll see their bravery, endurance, and resourcefulness, their heroism under appalling conditions, their competence and professional dedication, the constant sexism they faced, the emotional trauma that destroyed their psyches, and the enemies who shot at them, Geneva Conventions be damned.
Even when no particular crisis presents itself, Messineo re-creates the moment-to-moment tensions that afflict her two nurse protagonists:
So begins the long task of finishing the surgeries already in progress; stabilizing those just coming into the post-op tent; giving plasma, or whole blood when available; lifting the ‘heavy orthopedics’ with their colossal casts, arms and legs immobilized by a hundred pounds of plaster. The shock patients with their thready pulses; the boys with ‘battle fatigue,’ whimpering and taking cover under their cots, thinking themselves still in the field; the deaf, the maimed, and the blind, their heads carefully wrapped and bandaged, their tentative fingers reaching out in front of them, seared and melted together from clawing their way out of burning tanks.
Consequently, The Fire by Night bears witness to the unsung heroines of World War II (if not, by implication, all wars). Such a story is long overdue. And yet, despite its powerful moments, rendered so vividly that you feel as if you can’t take any more punishment, The Fire by Night feels incomplete as a novel. In fact, it’s more like a tendentious essay–or two of them, to be precise.
I say two because the protagonists’ stories hardly intersect, and if either were omitted, the plot wouldn’t change, only get shorter. Jo McMahon serves in Europe, whereas Kay Elliott is captured in the Philippines and spends years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Though each undergoes her own, somewhat different but always harrowing trials, after a while, their struggles seem like a catalog rather than a coherent narrative. Moreover, Messineo is plainly out to set the record straight, and her earnestness undermines her.
Of the two protagonists, Jo has the advantage. Abandoned at the front lines caring for a tent of six critically wounded or ill patients, she must constantly use her ingenuity to keep them, and herself, alive. I like this story better, especially its first half, when problems multiply, she keeps going by force of will, and the men she’s tending are just bodies, not individuals yet. On the other hand, Kay’s narrative, though gripping in detail–she’s captive in what’s essentially a death camp–remains a more solitary struggle. But to varying degrees, both stories suffer from the same flaw: They fall flat when the protagonists deal with men, not one of whom has any depth.
For example, take the captain whose undermanned infantry platoon holds the position where Jo’s tent happens to be. Might he insult her, demean her rank and abilities, and say that he can’t guarantee her safety? Sure. Would he throw tantrum after tantrum and shrug off the lives of the men in her tent? I doubt it. On the flip side, Kay’s husband is a flawless human, the mere sight of whom inspired her to remove her clothes–and that’s just about all we know of him. Back at the other extreme, when Kay and Jo trained Stateside, they worked with a doctor who sexually assaulted the nurses and threatened to blacklist them if they complained. Real problem? Of course. Real guy? No; he’s cardboard, and, to no surprise, his comeuppance arrives all too easily.
Male authors can and should be faulted for failing to draw their women characters as full people. But the reverse must also be true, and to call this novel “women’s fiction” would be no excuse. More importantly, to describe sexual brutalities perpetrated by cartoon men only cheapens the impact, when subtlety would serve much better. These themes deserve no less.
I also hope that Messineo (and her editor) pay closer attention next time to the words on the page; I was startled that a writer this capable should commit so many lapses. For instance, civilians and other noncombatants are interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, not interred, as the text says here, though that might also occur eventually, as it frequently does. A bomber doesn’t hone in on a target; it homes in. Finally, the redundant phrase historical fiction novel has always struck me as the mark of an amateur–and in this book, it appears in the Acknowledgments section. Yikes.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.