The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War
by Susan Luz (Brazil 1972–75) and Marcus Brotherton
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)
I PICKED UP THIS BOOK WITH TREPIDATION. The title seemed grandiose; the legend above it trumpeted: “From the daughter-in-law of George Luz Sr., one of the original Band of Brothers.” The blurbs on the back came from Brothers in that Band, a documentary producer specializing in WWII, and a Brigadier General.
I thought, We’re selling patriotism here.
As a Viet Nam veteran, I’m allergic to patriotism.
So I was prepared to scoff. And when early pages featured faith in God’s will and prayer, my scoff-alert heightened.
As a former Catholic, I’m allergic to Catholicism.
Those disclaimers given, I will say that I was pleasantly surprised. This book, the autobiography of a woman who has lived life double-time in strange and exotic places, proved a compelling read.
Luz was an overweight, intense young world-saver when she joined the Peace Corps while a nursing student at the University of Rhode Island. The Corps was her second choice; she intended to join the Army and go to Viet Nam, but her father, a WWII veteran, flatly rejected the concept.
The Peace Corps assigned her by herself to central Brazil, where she helped set up and run a complex of small medical clinics. It was in her town, in broad daylight, that the unspeakable happened: she was beaten and raped by three men.
That she managed to live through a horrendous attack by men armed with guns and machetes was phenomenal. That, following a period of recuperation, she returned to her town and her mission, walks the line between admirable and crazy.
But it worked for her.
She returned to the US in 1975, earned a Masters in Public Health, left anew for Brazil with Project Hope, came home to hold two simultaneous full-time jobs (as a nurse for the most disreputable high school in Providence, and as head nurse of a psychiatric prison in Cranston), and joined the Army Reserves, which sent her to such disparate corners of the globe as Germany and Bolivia. And oh, yes: in the meantime, she helped support three nephews with cystic fibrosis. And got married.
And went to Iraq as a full-bird colonel, the highest-ranking officer in her reserve hospital unit.
There is a bitter review on the book’s Amazon site that purports to be from someone who served in Luz’s unit in Mosul and Al Asad: “I doubt that she got a drop of blood on her the entire time we were in Iraq. Her two greatest accomplishments were having cookouts and organizing vaccines.”
This, by Luz’s own account, is largely true — and might explain why the pages about her service in Iraq as senior officer in charge of Public Health and morale at her combat hospital seemed, to me at least, to comprise the least interesting section of the book. Luz is not Hamlet; but she makes no more claim on the role than Eliot’s Prufrock, who declared himself “an attendant lord/one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two . . .” and added that he is “Almost, at times, the Fool.” Which, in my experience, is a pretty good job description for a Morale Officer.
Not every combat nurse is up to her elbows in blood, just as not every soldier in a war zone trades fire with the enemy. Contrary to the lore, there are more supporting players in the “theatre of war” than there are starring roles (if direct combatants can be said to be “stars,” which I find debatable). Their stories are absolutely valid, and necessary to an accurate view of the entire production.
Luz’s take on the war is exactly that: her story, told simply, with enthusiasm, heart, and unpretentiousness.
The Nightingale of Mosul (an odd title: the singing to which the book alludes happens in Al Asad) is not a masterpiece of introspection. It isn’t a work of high literary art; it leaves the occasional loose end and employs a few grammar no-nos (“comprised of”— Aaargh!!!). Still, tired old cynic that I am, I enjoyed it. The prose is smooth, and the life of the woman at the heart of it makes it worth the read.
Buy it for your nurse friends. For kids contemplating service in the Peace Corps or the Army Reserves. Buy it for Catholic friends, Country-Western music buffs, and True Believers.
Or maybe just buy it for yourself, because Susan Luz is an intriguing, very human character, charging the stage with enthusiasm, scattering the floorboards with bright petals of bruised good cheer.
Susan O’Neill (Army Nurse Corps Viet Nam, 1969-70; Peace Corps Venezuela, 1973-74) is the author of the newly-re-released story collection Don’t Mean Nothing, a pack of lies loosely based on her experience in Viet Nam. Her website is http://susanoneill.us. She is co-editor of Vestal Review (http://www.vestalreview.net/), the world’s oldest magazine exclusively for Flash Fiction.
To order The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.