Being a product of a public school education in the late nineties, I have a lamentable lack of knowledge of World War II in the Pacific. My history classes usually stopped somewhere around the 1920s. If they didn’t, and actually reached World War II, all we were exposed to was the European theater. No one in my eighth grade history class knew the leader of Japan during the war, and few even knew that China was to any extent involved. Thus, I was so happy to find a book that discusses the Pacific theater, and even happier that it’s also about women in the service.
Elizabeth M. Norman starts the book off with some flowery language that seemed, to me, a bit superfluous. If a word outside the average person’s vocabulary is truly the only one that suits the situation, then, for all means, use it. In my opinion, though, if a simpler, more easily-understood word will fit the situation well, then that’s the word to use. There’s no reason to obfuscate the reader. See? I just did it there. Why not use confuse, which gets the point of the sentence across more quickly? While the book is by no means a fluff read, it’s not a doctoral thesis, either.
Luckily, the vocabulary lesson ends fairly quickly. Norman shows us the life of the nurses in Manila before the war, a plush existence for people in the armed services. The rude awakening the American and Philippine troops had once the Japanese began their attack on the islands is depicted rather astutely, reflecting the naive mindset most of the nurses had.
In fact, this is one of the most important points of the book. The nurses may have been unprepared for the realities of war, but they quickly adapted to most, if not all, the situations they were thrust into. They treated patients in extreme circumstances, both soldiers when they were still able to have American “hospitals”, and civilians when thrust into civilian internment camps. Their story is almost incredible when one considers the amount of strength, both physical and mental, it must have taken to live through the conditions they faced, and Norman does a nice job of telling their stories without romanticizing the women. Sure, they’re devoted and resilient, but they also can be cold, or prone to depression, or controlling, or just plain grumpy.
One other thing about the book bothers me; it’s a personal peeve, I guess. Norman jumps from person to person within chapters, sections, and even pages. Due to this, I don’t feel like I got a cohesive image of any one woman; their lives run together for me. I had to take time to remember salient facts about a particular woman. I think this could have been made easier for the reader by following particular women for good chunks of the book. Other readers might like the more eclectic gathering of the women’s accounts, but I found it a little disorienting.
In the end, We Band of Angels provided me with more knowledge on the Pacific front of World War II, and it also gave me something just as valuable — insight as to what it was like to be pioneers in the realm of gender equality. These women are admirable, and I enjoyed reading about their experiences.