Published: 2004 by Atria Books
Source: Borrowed from the library
A few weeks ago I was surfing the Net and somewhere (I’m kicking myself for not remembering the exact place) I found a list of books that included American Nightingale, a book about an Army nurse who landed on the Normandy Beaches just after D-Day. As I am drawn to World War II stories I found a copy in my local library system and put a hold on it. I picked it up on Monday night and finished it Wednesday night.
Wow. Oh wow.
The nurse is Frances Slanger, born Freidel Schlanger in Lodz, Poland; a Jewish girl who with her family immigrate to the United States to flee persecution. Between helping her father sell fruit across Boston and attending school, in her spare time Frances loved to read and write stories and had a distant dream of becoming a writer. Ultimately, though, she decides that her true calling is to help others and she decides to pursue a nursing career, an unorthodox choice based on her upbringing.
Frances becomes a nurse and when World War II is declared she decides to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps. Frances’ journey to Normandy was not without its own obstacles, but after training and perseverance she was among the first nurses to land in France after the D-Day invasion. There was no time to be afraid – soldiers were injured and needed immediate attention, and Frances and her colleagues were immediately put to work.
Whenever she had some spare time, Frances still loved to write. A few months after arriving in France and settling in with the other nurses and personnel in the mobile hospital to which she was assigned (as much as one can settle down in a war zone), Frances writes a letter to Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, in response to an editorial praising Army’s nurses:
….We have learned a great deal about our American soldier, and the stuff he is made of. The wounded do not cry. Their buddies come first. The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. It is we who are proud to be here. Rough it? No. It is a privilege to be able to receive you, and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, “Hi-ya babe!”
After showing her letter to her friends in camp, she is strongly encouraged to send it to the newspaper. When the newspaper receives the letter they publish it on the editorial page. When it is published, soldiers immediately react to its message and write letters back to Sanger via the newspaper. Unfortunately, Frances did not have the opportunity to read these responses, because the day after she wrote her letter she was killed, the first American nurse to die in Europe.
This book is a biography of an amazing woman. It’s a cliché, but for a woman short on stature and outwardly quiet and reserved she was larger than life. She did what needed to be done, whether in her personal or professional life, and gained nothing but respect and admiration from her peers and from men whom she never met. Though I never heard of Frances Slanger until I learned about this book, and though I knew her fate before I began reading (it is mentioned on the jacket copy), I still cried at her death and at the reactions of those who were touched by her.
The author, Bob Welch, wrote a newspaper column about Slanger when made aware of her by an area teacher. When the column was published, he was contacted by a nurse who was in Frances’ Army unit, and the genesis of the book was born. I salute him for shedding a wider light on the life of this woman. And wherever I picked up on this book, thank you thank you thank you.
Highly highly recommended.