Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Elise Hooper’s book is one of the better versions of the stories told by the American publishing industry that relate to brave American nurses in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation during World War II. It suffers from the usual practice of presenting either incomplete knowledge of Australian activities in the area to no knowledge whatsoever. The book does have a number of strengths.
The protagonists, two nurses called Tess and Flor, are believable. Tess, like so many of her kind, fled the hardships of the Great Depression for the glamour and adventure of Manila. She served on the front lines until captured by the Japanese Imperial Army. Flor joins the Resistance and carries out activities designed to disrupt the smooth operations of the Army administration. Both women show remarkable fortitude in the face of the enemy and in winning concessions from their own senior staff.
They are strong women, forced by circumstance to be so. They do not set out to win the war themselves. Rather, their achievements are aided by the beauty of language with which the author tells their story. They are tough, but vulnerable. The war in the Pacific was a multifaced, complex entity whose story is best told as Hooper tells it, with compulsive, tender and dramatic prose spiced liberally with details of place and time.
Unconfined by lack of knowledge, Hooper includes details that were available only to someone who has done her research. The detailed knowledge of how the inhabitants of San Mateo are kept fed derives from meticulous research. This is an easy read. It is exciting, dramatic, and holds the attention of the reader. Both Tess and Flor know how far they can push their captors. They know when haggling is likely to be productive and waste no time where that technique is unlikely to leave them better off.
We have all been made receptive to methods of torture used by the Japanese. These are described but their explanation is not overdone. It was a technique employed by the very worst and Hooper is careful to restrict its use to these very individuals.
The camaraderie displayed by the nurses seems authentic. This is another area in a less controlled writer that can easily get out of hand. Hooper retains control over the emotions and lets it overwhelm only at intervals of moment.
Much has been written about the strength of the main characters. Tess and Flor combine superior strengths of character and demonstrate this quality on numerous occasions. Flor’s taking on of a Japanese soldier on page 348 is a typical example. What is often overlooked is the strength of the males. George and Six could never be classed as weak. They are overlooked because this book is about women, the emphasis is not on the men, and it is accepted that they are in their right place.
This is an easy book to read. It strikes at the surface of our psyche, requires no deep understanding of humankind, and leaves no emotional scars when it has been read. A satisfying book.
By Elise Hooper
$29.99; 382 pp