Book Reviews for Summer 2011
Angel Walk: Nurses at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
By Diane Vines (GRS’86) and Sharon Richie-Melvan Nonfiction (Arnica Publishing)
The authors of this frank, illuminating oral history, both psychiatric nurses, met in 1982 when they served with the first crop of nurse White House Fellows. Although the grit and sacrifices of combat nurses have been the subject of television shows (China Beach, M*A*S*H) and a handful of books, most notably Lynda Van Devanter’s moving Vietnam War memoir Home Before Morning, Angel Walk allows a spectrum of contemporary nurse veterans to tell their stories in their own words. And those words are often as poetic as they are honest. “If the wards are quiet, time drags, boredom sets in, and tempers grow short,” writes Tamora of her service at a combat support hospital. “But then you are aware that during these quiet times, there is a respite from the fighting and people are not being brutally wounded or killed.”
In all three conflicts covered by the authors, the wards are rarely still. Nurses male and female talk not just of the sometimes tender bonds they form with the wounded, but of friendships, romance, tedium, gallows humor, near unbearable heat and other discomforts, and the constant sense of foreboding. In Afghanistan, a nurse, a medic, and a translator are ambushed by the Taliban; in Iraq, a nurse who for weeks walked mere yards away from her quarters to lunch narrowly escapes death the day mortar fire claims a life in the spot.
What comes through most powerfully, though, is the nurses’ humanity and commitment to their profession. They are forever changed. Here is Lt. Colonel Vivian on the nurses she supervised in Iraq: “The camaraderie on the team is such that I just felt like I could entrust my life to these people. My nurses. God, I love them. I would go anywhere with them. Right now if they called me and said I need you, I would drop what I was doing with my family and figure out how I could help them. It just makes you that close.”
Angels engenders a deep respect for battle nurses and nurses in general. “For the rest of the civilian world out there, we want you to know that you could meet one of these ‘Angels of the Battlefield’ today in your church, at a school board meeting…” the authors write. “If you do, we want you to have a better understanding of who they are, what they have endured, how they have coped, and how they are thriving.” Anyone reading this book could conclude that when it comes to nurses at war, it can be said without irony: mission accomplished. ~Susan Seligson
The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit
By Laurie Barkin (SON’75,’82) Nonfiction (Fresh Pond Press)
Barkin’s book reads like a horrific page-turner. But these are real stories that happened to real people. And as a psychiatric nurse consultant, Barkin was privy to her patients’ tragedies, fears, and angst over the five years she worked in San Francisco General Hospital’s surgical and trauma unit.
Barkin plunges immediately into the adrenaline rush of SFGH, a “hospital of last resort” catering to drug addicts, victims of sexual and physical abuse, the homeless, and the city’s worst trauma cases. Her first day on the job, she meets a young paraplegic left paralyzed after being beaten by her pimp. The nurse must remember how to listen without internalizing her patient’s trauma—a constant theme through the book.
A roll call of sad cases flows steadily throughout The Comfort Garden. (Barkin uses pseudonyms and composites to describe her former patients.) Each story builds atop the other to form an emotional crescendo that leaves Barkin, and—by association—her readers, exhausted. There’s the man who as a child witnessed his mother fall to her death while he played nearby, the mother who saw her children’s throats slashed, and the young wife whose husband caught a bullet to save her life.
Each day Barkin soaked in their stories. And each day she struggled to find a tenuous peace from the nightmares those stories induced. Early on, she discovered the hospital’s Comfort Garden, with its placard reading, “Nature’s beauty can bring you comfort.” She would walk there to work through her jumble of emotions after a particularly tough case.
As well as providing a window into the world of psychiatric caregivers, the book is an attempt to purge all the stories haunting the author from her 22-plus years as a nurse. She has—in writing this book—found release in sharing her story. ~Leslie Friday
In from the Wilderness: Sherman: She-r-man
By David Weekley (STH’82) Nonfiction (Wipf and Stock Publishers)
On a Sunday morning in 2009, Weekley donned his vestments and cross and prepared to deliver a sermon, much as he had nearly every week since being ordained a Methodist minister 28 years earlier. But this Sunday, as he recounts in his new memoir, was to be different: he would reveal his secret. Confronting a packed church, he announced, “I am a transsexual man.”
Weekley’s book recounts the journey—both physical and spiritual—that brought him to that morning.
He provides scant details of his Midwestern childhood, but from his earliest recollection, he says, he knew he was different. “While I viewed myself as a little boy, the rest of the world saw me as a little girl.” (It’s telling that nowhere in his book does he mention the female name he was given at birth). He writes obliquely of “a truly horrific adolescence and early young adulthood as many people, peer groups, and institutions tried to force me into an identity I could never own.”
Help comes in the form of several enlightened adults, whose support and acceptance become a lifeline for the teenager. Weekley begins meeting with a medical team, undergoing the battery of medical, psychiatric, and socialization tests necessary for transgender surgery and then the surgeries themselves. By the time he is 24, he has physically become a man.
But the book’s real power comes from its description of the emotional tightrope he finds himself walking after his sex change. Having always felt like an outsider, he discovers that his newly acquired sexual identity exacts an enormous price. His medical team urges him not to reveal himself as a transgender person.
Weekley’s despair begins to ease after he joins the Methodist Church. Always a believer, he was not raised in a church-going family. He revels in the newfound sense of community he discovers within the church. And yet his sense of isolation persists. He describes arriving at BU in fall 1980 to pursue a graduate divinity degree, full of optimism that turns to chagrin when he discovers he is “unable to risk sharing my personal journey” because of the conservative political climate at the time.
He falls in love with a woman he meets at BU, and they marry and raise a family. But the code of silence that his profession requires—and his inability to discuss his transgender identity with his wife—begins to take a toll. The marriage collapses and Weekley continues to long for a chance to share his personal story, in his words, to “come in from the wilderness.”
Emboldened by a happy second marriage, the author musters the courage to reveal his transgender identity to his congregation, despite the fact that the Methodist Church “continues to officially reject LGTBQ people.” Readers will feel a sense of relief—and elation—in the author’s description of his congregation’s reaction and the “spiritual and emotional healing” it brings. ~John O’Rourke
Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, American’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group
By John Atlas (LAW’68) Nonfiction (Vanderbilt University Press)
In summer 1969, young community activist Wade Rathke, the white, New Orleans–born radical who would go on to lead the national antipoverty group ACORN, was enlisted to open a welfare rights office in Springfield, Mass. When his wife asked if it could wait—she’d bought tickets to a rock festival—Rathke said the rights of the poor came first. As Atlas writes in this engaging, thorough history of the evolution of the now-defunct organization (ACORN declared bankruptcy in November 2010), Rathke would think of Woodstock, the festival he passed up, as “a symbolic moment that separated the political activists from the mostly tie-dyed and beaded cultural ones.”
It’s been a long strange trip for Rathke, with the Arkansas-born movement—ACORN stands for Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now—sprouting branches nationwide to rally citizens on behalf of welfare rights, fair housing, union organizing, urban planning, banking reform, and the Project Vote registration drive that triggered invigorated blows to an organization that had been a longtime conservative punching bag.
In his five years of observing ACORN’s activities at the local, state, and national levels, public interest lawyer Atlas, founder of the National Housing Institute, had unlimited access to Rathke and executive director Steve Kest. With an even hand, he profiles the often-tyrannical drive and strident vision of Rathke, who drew inspiration from the agrarian revolt that produced the Nonpartisan League.
In the book, which predates ACORN’s demise, Atlas fleshes out the press record with mitigating insider facts. He doesn’t gloss over the most damning of ACORN’s “growing pains,” such as the widely publicized prostitute and pimp “sting” or the embezzlement of $1 million, later repaid, by Rathke’s brother Dale. As for the notorious tape showing ACORN staffers advising two right-wing plants on how to hide prostitution income from the federal government and purchase property for a brothel, Atlas writes what TV viewers could not have known: that a widely seen video of the conservative activists “dressed up in cartoonish pimp garb” had been doctored, and that when the activists actually entered the ACORN office, they wore respectable dress shirts and khakis.
The book ricochets from the South to New York to the Twin Cities and south again to New Orleans, with Rathke and his minions strategizing to deliver rightful benefits after Hurricane Katrina and get the disenfranchised to the polls.
Setting up temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge, the organization swung into action with computer message boards and housing officers both in New Orleans and Houston, where members often greeted busloads of refugees when they arrived at the Astrodome.
Atlas delivers a rare look into the machinery of a high-profile, controversial grassroots organization—how battles are chosen and troops mobilized, how victory is measured, how the comfortable are afflicted. He believes that for all its notoriety, ACORN is likely to be the model for social movements to follow. ~SS
No Day, No Dusk, No Love
By Carla Panciera (GRS’87) Poetry (Bordighera Press)
Panciera is a whimsical storyteller and insightful witness to nature and lives lost to history. There is a quiet warmth to her poetry, a confessional tone that invites readers to be part of her world. That world plunges into the past lives of rivers, Native American tribes, and family members and surges forward to her musings as a high school English teacher and mother of three daughters.
Her imagery is crisp and creative, evoking all the senses on a single page. In “Here and Then,” she writes of the distinct smell of the forest floor, “as if decay itself breathes in and out.” And a deep, bubbling voice rises in “I Wish My Love Was a River,” when she longs for her lover’s words to travel up “through a throat of stones.”
Water is a place of reflection for Panciera, as when she writes of the seashore in Maine, the Sakonnet River, or Halfmoon Pond. She seeks connection to the water, has a respectful awe for its powers, and hints at the secrets hidden in its depths.
Loss and longing are common themes in her work—whether for a family member, a farmhouse destroyed by fire, or an evanescent moment at dusk. The ache and joy of motherhood also abide in Panciera’s work. In her “Elegy for the Perfect Bones,” she mourns her daughter’s fractured arm, wishing it forever whole and unscathed as it was the day she was born. She likewise struggles with the impossibility of fulfilling her daughter’s wish for a turtle in “This Is What It Means: Allegory for Beatrice.”
Panciera’s collection of 33 poems, presented in both English and Italian, will make you smile in recognition of a tender moment, give you pause at those that are harder to bear, and pull you in again for another read. ~LF