When We Had Wings is a collaboration between three popular women’s fiction authors, one of whom (Kristina McMorris) has written several heartwarming WWII-set stories. That alone had me excited to read this novel and the fact that Susan Meissner, a personal favorite, is another contributor was the cherry on top for me. Perhaps my resultant expectations were too high but this book wound up being very disappointing.Eleanor Lindstrom needs to flee Minnesota. She’s fallen for a man whose heart belongs to another and now her only choice is to leave the country and start over, as one apparently does after such a mistake. When she becomes a Navy nurse and is transferred to Manila, she feels extremely lucky. Not only is she literally on an island paradise, she’s made two terrific new friends who have helped her (somewhat) recapture her joie de vivre.
Penny Franklin has suffered enough tragedy to last a lifetime. Joining the Army nursing corps is her chance to begin again and she is thrilled when she is transferred from her home state of Texas to beautiful Manila in the Philippines. She’s confident she can escape the pain of her past in the festive, lively atmosphere of the lovely island.
The loss of her parents had left Lita Capel, a beautiful Filipina, a virtual orphan. Becoming a nurse and working at a U.S. armed forces hospital is her ticket to a better life. Eventually, she’ll be able to join her sisters in the States, find a career path she enjoys more than her present one and perhaps even find love. For now, however, she is just glad to have good friends like Penny and Eleanor to help her get through the hard days until her dreams come true.
The Pacific Theater was supposed to be the safe, secure part of the war-torn world. The Americans had been confident their entrance into the conflict would ensure a swift Allied victory. As the old saying goes, pride often goes before the fall. Which is exactly what happens to the Philippines - U.S. armed forces find themselve forced first to retreat, then evacuate the islands as they fall into enemy (Japanese) hands, leaving many nurses, support personnel, civilians and troops behind.
I have to laud the authors for tackling what has now become a familiar time period in a fresh way. Most WWII tales concentrate either on the European front, primarily England and France, or on the ‘war at home’ in the U.S, so it’s nice to see a representation of the Pacific Theater. I also have to give full credit to their historical research; while I am by no means an expert on this subject, the information given in the text is plentiful and matches the non-fiction accounts I’ve read about this arena.
But while the location and historicity offer a chance for some rich storytelling, the authors have missed that opportunity. Instead of the past providing a lush, exciting backdrop for the tale, this reads like a treatise on the horrors and the atrocities of the war. Fictional narrative as well as character and relationship building are often brushed aside to make room for events and details of daily life that add little to the story except to remind readers of the violence and terrible conditions of PoW camps. The viewpoint of these events is also extremely myopic – the story is told very much from the American nurse/military viewpoint. Even Lita’s portion of the novel contains no uniquely Filipino perspective; we do see how the Japanese treated the island natives slightly better than European civilians and armed forces personnel, but never really explore what their lives were like. All we really observe (until close to the end) is Lita helping her American friends or being concerned with the Allied cause.
There are romances here but they are also subsumed by the detailed exploration of what is happening overall, as opposed to what is happening to the characters. The ladies spend very little time with the men they fall in love with and the guys are mere outlines rather than fully fleshed characters. In fairness, the three female leads aren’t much more than that themselves.
Another stumbling block is having the Filipina character be on “Lita time”. The early part of the story makes gentle mockery of the fact that Lita is always late. I expected this to become some sort of plot point - that her lateness saves her life or causes her to discover a big, important secret but instead it’s just dropped halfway through the narrative. Given that this particular critique is often lobbed at people of color in a racist manner, bringing it up and then doing absolutely nothing with it felt peculiar and frankly, made me uncomfortable enough that I thought it worth mentioning.
An additional irritant is how often the issue of bowing comes up in the story. In many cultures, even today, a light bob is seen as an act of courtesy, a deeper bow, a gesture of respect to someone in authority over you. The text makes it sound as though there is something inherently wrong with this custom.
One trigger warning - there are threats of rape and talk of exchanging sex for favors, which is pretty typical of a female-centric war tale. None of this is explored in detail.When We Had Wings reads like an odd amalgamation of real-life accounts of armed forces life in the occupied Philippines with some romance thrown in. It never really reads like women’s fiction and contains barely enough storyline to qualify for historical fiction. In spite of the unique subject matter, I can’t recommend this book.
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