WHEN WE HAD WINGS
By: Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, and Susan Meissner
Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld
Published: October 18, 2022
Publisher: Harper Muse
Set in the Philippines in 1941, three nurses, Eleanor, Penny, and Lita become fast friends. Eleanor and Penny were both US military nurses, while Lita was a Philipino nurse working in the hospital. On the weekends, they gathered for drinks and marveled at the paradise around them. All three women came to Manila to forget their pasts…a broken heart and a lost husband and child. Then Pearl Harbor is hit by the Japanese and their lives are suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by war.
Collaborative novels seem to be much more common lately, the third one I have read this year. So, when three well-respected authors come together to write a book, you shouldn’t miss it. Longtime friends already, the three authors were approached by the publisher to write a WWII novel, with the subject matter to be decided by them. They wanted to write something that hadn’t been written about much and knew it must feature women. During their research, Susan Meissner found a documentary on the “Angels of Bataan”. They had their topic.
After Pearl Harbor was hit, many of the people on bases in Manila were taken as POWs including the nurses. Some were sent to remote hospitals in horrible conditions and others were forced to serve under combat conditions with little to no supplies, food, and in horrible living arrangements. These were the first women POWs. Even though there was the Geneva Convention, the Japanese forces had no concerns regarding their violations and the treatment of their prisoners. They also viewed Philippinos as traitors since they were working on the US military bases.
Eleanor, Penny, and Lita were separated into different camps, each struggling with the conditions while also having to continue their duties as nurses. They were confronted with horrible losses and brutality, starvation, and watching some of their closest friends be killed on the spot. All without any connection to the outside world. Did the US even know this was happening to them? Was anyone coming to save them?
“Sometimes love can break your heart”, Maud said.
Penny looked at her friend and tried to smile but couldn’t. “In my experience, it’s the only thing that does.”
I listened to this book on audio and enjoyed the narration. Since the chapters mostly alternated between the three women, I expected three different narrators, but there was only one. Saskia did a wonderful job with the character’s voices and made the listening experience easy to follow.
Hope was what kept you putting one foot in front of the other. Hope was what kept you laying down your head at night and rising from your cot the next morning. Hope was what kept you mopping fevered brows and changing dressings and administering aspirin when you could get it. Hope was what made you pick at husks of rice until your fingers bled. Hope was what sent you out into a forbidden village to get food for starving children.
This story moved me like a novel hadn’t in a while. I’m not sure if it was because of the friendships between the women, the horrible conditions they endured, that it was based on actual events, or all of the above. But, I was quite emotional listening to this story. No war story is happy and there is much sadness in this one, but all three leaned on the hope that they would see each other again. They prayed the suffering of the people in their care would end and the US would end the war. They hoped each day that their closest friends would make it through another day. Sadly, not all of those wishes came true, but once they were liberated, they did find ways to move on…just not necessarily on the path they expected.
These nurses were brave, fierce, and committed to their duties. I knew very little about the people in the Philipines during WWII and my eyes were opened regarding the tragedies there. On your next free weekend, pick up this book and immerse yourself in the lives of these three women. The story is seamless and you would never know it was a collaborative novel. It will definitely be a favorite of 2022 for me.