Published by William Morrow on October 3, 2017
Source: the publisher
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A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.
In war-torn France, Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl from the tenements of Brooklyn, tends to six seriously wounded soldiers in a makeshift medical unit. Enemy bombs have destroyed her hospital convoy, and now Jo singlehandedly struggles to keep her patients and herself alive in a cramped and freezing tent close to German troops. There is a growing tenderness between her and one of her patients, a Scottish officer, but Jo’s heart is seared by the pain of all she has lost and seen. Nearing her breaking point, she fights to hold on to joyful memories of the past, to the times she shared with her best friend, Kay, whom she met in nursing school.
Half a world away in the Pacific, Kay is trapped in a squalid Japanese POW camp in Manila, one of thousands of Allied men, women, and children whose fates rest in the hands of a sadistic enemy. Far from the familiar safety of the small Pennsylvania coal town of her childhood, Kay clings to memories of her happy days posted in Hawaii, and the handsome flyer who swept her off her feet in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Surrounded by cruelty and death, Kay battles to maintain her sanity and save lives as best she can . . . and live to see her beloved friend Jo once more.
When the conflict at last comes to an end, Jo and Kay discover that to achieve their own peace, they must find their place—and the hope of love—in a world that’s forever changed. With rich, superbly researched detail, Teresa Messineo’s thrilling novel brings to life the pain and uncertainty of war and the sustaining power of love and friendship, and illuminates the lives of the women who risked everything to save others during a horrifying time.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Fire By Night by Teresa Messineo caught my eye mainly because it is the story of two American nurses that enlisted to serve during World War II: Jo was sent to The Western Front and Kay served at Pearl Harbor. I’m especially interested in these wartime, frontline nurses because I am a nurse and this is a branch of my career that I know almost nothing about. I was also intrigued by the fact that these two nurses were best friends back in New York before even going to war.
Kay and Jo tell their stories in separate POV-chapters. Kay ends up going to Pearl Harbor before Jo finishes her training in New York. She sends letters back to Jo about how beautiful it is in that part of the Pacific and how she has fallen in love with a soldier-even though she isn’t supposed to. Kay loves her job. Then the attack on Pearl Harbor happens and completely throws Kay’s life into an uproar. She is sent to a Japanese POW camp where she still works as a nurse, but the conditions there are inhumane and degrading, and death is constantly around her. Kay daydreams of seeing Jo again but she isn’t even sure she will make it out of the camp alive.
Meanwhile, out on The Western Front, Jo and her medical coworkers have begun to pack up their tent hospital in order to move away from the front line into a more safe area when they are ambushed. Nearly all of their medical equipment and supplies are lost and Jo finds herself the sole caretaker for the six remaining wounded soldiers. She is constantly on the move as they often require total care, and Jo is even required to do work that is beyond her training-like life-saving surgery. Jo works in constant fear of another attack by the Germans, but that cannot be helped and she cannot stop providing care to the six men in need. Although the odds are stacked against most of them due to their critical status, their survival rate is astoundingly high. Jo thinks of Kay all the time-wondering what she is doing and if she is okay, wherever she may be.
Often in multiple-POV stories, one perspective stands out to me more than the others. In this case, I found Jo’s story to be the more compelling of the two. I loved reading what she was up to on The Western Front, how she was improvising with few/no supplies, and how her strength was being tested, how vulnerable she was unbeknownst to her charges. I know from experience that sometimes nurses get caught up in the medical aspects of our training and often inadvertently forget to provide that hands-on, sit-with-our-patient kind of care that nursing is really all about, but I admire the way Jo was able to do both. Not always, mind you. There were times when she had to separate herself personally from the hell she was living in and from the personal hell of the soldiers’ situations in order to stay focused and provide care, and I understand that too. But when she needed to, Jo sat with them; she held their hand, she talked them through their nightmares and the dark places of that war. THAT is nursing. (I love Jo. So much.)
She felt like she had no courage and no strength left, no certainty of her future, of her patients’ future, of the future of the whole damned world. But the only thing she was sure of–as she got up and made her way, achingly, toward the front of the tent–was that she had just acted as a nurse. That that had been important. She had sat with a patient for a few moments only, but she knew what she had done, what she had been. She had been a nurse. And she was surprised how that still made her feel.
Kay embodied nursing from another aspect entirely, although in no less a capacity. It was a little harder for me to relate to Kay on a personal level (until the very last chapter) because thankfully I am so far removed from Kay’s position. The thing I loved most about Kay, though, is that even though her ability to take care of her patients was challenged by her biggest, most crippling fears, she persevered and did her job to the best of her ability. She provided the best care that she could, even when she could barely able to stand up.
Kay looked at her companion, and for a moment she could see her again. For a moment she was herself.
“Kay, honey? Thought I had lost you there for a moment.”
Kay thought she had too, but was too weak to answer.
“It’s time for our shift, sweetheart. Time to go to work.”
While I was reading, it honestly felt like the hits just kept on coming to these two. It felt like they just couldn’t catch a break. It occurred to me that I could put my book down and take a breather but that they never could; “taking a breather” wasn’t really an option for these women that were in the heaviest and hardest places during the war, and that resonated strongly with me throughout this book, from the first page until I finished the story.
Aside from the nursing parts of this story, I found the history incredibly interesting even though it was tough to read at times. This book grabbed hold of me and didn’t really let go; what I mean is that it was high-intensity in terms of emotion. It was heartbreaking in that even though this is fiction, it is based on truth, and there just isn’t very much happy that happened on The Western Front (at least not in this book) nor in the Japanese POW camps.
There is a portion of this book that takes place post-war and while it is much, much less intense: it isn’t my favorite part of the story. I liked the wartime parts best. I think this is because after the war was over, Kay and Jo are able to think and dwell on loves lost/loves missing and I feel like this segment of the story is less developed than the war portions. There is one romance that takes up a short portion of the book and I never felt completely invested in it. I feel like there is something missing in the build-up.
Ultimately, I’m amazed at the depth of knowledge it took to write this book and how much I learned about nurses on the front and nursing during World War II. As a nurse myself, this was such an enjoyable read, even though it was heavy at times. I appreciate so much the women that have gone before me and that have had to work under such different and more difficult conditions; something that I hope I will never have to experience nor understand.