The Fire by Night
By Theresa Messineo
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
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. (from Goodreads)
‘The Fire by Night’ introduces a powerful new voice in Women’s and WWII fiction; Teresa Messineo’s debut novel gives unique voice to the women she has met or researched about that is very different from any I have read before. This reader had no idea how terrible the conditions were that many nurses really worked under. What impresses me the most is that the women in this book are a composite of lives of real women who were military nurses during WWII. The courage they demonstrate will stay with the reader long after the last page is read.
Two women, best friends from the time they met in nursing school, enlisted as nurses in the Army Corp in the early days of World War II. Their journeys may have separated them physically, but their friendship and concern for each other endured through their worst days. Each is from a different background; Jo is from the tenements of Brooklyn and Kay is from a small town in Pennsylvania. There were times I wondered if I could have endured what the real medical personnel did whose stories encompassed Jo and Kay. I wonder if I could have signed the oaths of secrecy the real nurses of WWII did so the world could forget what their enormous contributions.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who want to know the truth that separated these women who survived and had to adjust to a world they no longer fit into. While reading it, I thought often of a woman I had never met, a cousin of my grandmother’s who died in France after many, many evacuations of injured soldiers as a transport nurse. Thanks to the author, I now know a little of what her life was really like during her years of service.
Jo eventually ended up at the Western Front in Europe. The medical unit was pulling out, and she was left with six critical care patients until the ambulances and trucks could empty and return. The medical convoy was attacked by Germans, killing every last man and woman in the convoy. Jo had almost no meds or supplies left, then no doctors. There was one small unit of GI’s nearby who had little or nothing to do with her, or the soldiers in the medical tent – the Scotsman with typhus, one from England, and four others with varying needs, including a major needing an appendectomy. From then until the war ended, she relived many of the events of the years since her enlistment, dreams haunted with the death of her brother while on active duty..
Kay went into the Pacific theatre of operations, and thought she had a great location until Pearl Harbor was attacked. She ended up as a Japanese POW for more than 3 years, first in underground tunnels in Corregidor, then in an internment camp in Manila, a university where more than 4000 civilians were held. When the Japanese first captured them, and the meds were running out, the nurses kept tiny vials of morphine, tucked into the victory rolls of their hair, to use if being a POW got too terrible. One by one, POW’s weakened from the negligible meals given to them, many dying of starvation. Kay was less than 80 pounds when the war ended.
This is a phenomenal first novel into which the author poured her heart and several years of research. Jo and Kay’s (fictional) first person accounts are in alternating chapters, which is an excellent layout for their stories. We see and hear of war-torn Europe and the dehumanizing life of an internment camp. We see what moving forward after the war looks like for each woman, and how their friendship has endured through their years apart. We see the grit and valor of our unsung heroes, those who could be our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. I highly recommend this novel to those who appreciate good, solid women’s fiction, especially during World War II. It is definitely a huge chapter of history that we need to learn and share.